Wildfire smoke has been an issue in the Columbia River Gorge for several years. Oregon’s Labor Day week fires in September 2020 led to the Gorge experiencing record-shattering hazardous air quality index (AQI) levels. The Eagle Creek Fire in 2017 also blanketed the Gorge in smoke. Since the Eagle Creek Fire fire, the Gorge has had 30 official days of unsafe air quality due to wildfire smoke. The biggest health threat from smoke is from microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These fine particles can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases.
It’s not just wildfires that generate smoke in the area. The region is known for its abundant cherry and pear orchards. All of that orchard waste historically has been burned, and when that type of wood burns it can release the chemicals that have been sprayed on the trees. Public and private forestland is thinned or cleared, and the slash gets burned. Most of the counties are rural and there aren’t regulations on wood stoves.
Prior to 2020, the Gorge relied on a single air quality monitor in The Dalles for all of the region’s air quality data. In August of 2020, a second monitor was installed at the West Side Fire Station in Hood River. However, evidence suggests that most monitors are only accurate within a very small radius. The Columbia Gorge spans 80 miles and includes geographical features that can change weather patterns throughout, creating dozens of micro-climates, intense summer winds and thick winter inversions. Localized air quality data is critical for the health and economic viability of the region.
In response, Oregon State University Extension faculty and staff in the Gorge brainstormed how to improve local response to wildfire smoke. OSU Extension and partners at the Hood River Soil & Water Conservation District, the Healthy Community Collective and Wasco County were awarded three grants to work with local governments and agencies to implement measures that help people get ready for these smoke events. The grants include:
- $104,000 from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to research and put into practice alternatives to burning and smoke mitigation strategies.
- $80,000 from Oregon DEQ to produce a regional community response plan for smoke.
- $10,000 from the Oregon Health and Science University Knight Cancer Institute to purchase, install and maintain 10 new air quality monitors for the region.
As a result, nine air quality monitors have been installed at schools and orchards across Hood River and Wasco counties. A website shares their data and updates the AQI numbers every five minutes. The team shares the new monitoring network and website at presentations and community meetings. The data is helping to increase community air quality literacy, starting with organizational partners, frontline workers, community health workers and local youths.
Lauren Kraemer, an associate professor of practice and faculty member in the Extension Family and Community Health Program in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, presented the air quality monitoring site and data to 175 seventh-graders at Hood River Middle School, where one of the monitors has been installed. Students learned about data literacy, particulate matter and air quality and will be helping develop messaging for smoke-sensitive and vulnerable groups.
Being able to pinpoint the Air Quality Index (AQI) with geographically dispersed monitoring sites enables the community response team to provide timely, accurate and locally relevant data and health messaging that enables employers, administrators, community members and tourists to make critical decisions about work and school operations, as well as safe recreation in the community.