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Wildfire smoke latest climate crisis to hit southern Oregon

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 14, 2021

Mars Hints (left) helps distribute necessities to people in need in Medford on Fri., Aug. 20, 2021.  (Dave Killen)
Mars Hints (left) helps distribute necessities to people in need in Medford on Fri., Aug. 20, 2021. (Dave Killen)
By Kale Williams Oregonian

Kathy Keesee usually checks the air quality app on her phone at least two or three times a day.

When the index that measures air pollution goes above 100, considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” Keesee knows it’s time to bring masks to the people working in the fields.

For Keesee, the program coordinator for Unete, a Medford-based farmworker advocacy group, the summer’s unrelenting heat and near-ubiquitous wildfire smoke have offered yet another set of challenges on top of a year that has had plenty for the roughly 600 families her organization serves.

While Portland has largely been spared from the extremely smoky days that characterized last year’s intense fire season, parts of southern Oregon have been suffering under a pall of wildfire smoke with severely diminished air quality throughout much of the summer.

The smoke — layered on top of a housing crisis wrought by last year’s wildfires, a resurgent strain of COVID-19 and a crippling drought — has left many in the region teetering on the brink. Among the most vulnerable to the overlapping crises: people experiencing homelessness and those who work in the agriculture industry.

“This is my 25th year with Unete,” Keesee told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “I’ve never seen it like this. The level of desperation is really sad.”

Smoky days increasing

As of Tuesday, Medford had logged 26 days where the air quality index measured 101 or higher this year. Ashland saw 30.

Klamath Falls, not far from where the Bootleg fire scorched more than 400,000 acres this summer, saw 40. For comparison, Klamath Falls had a total of 20 “unhealthy” air days from 1987 to 2014.

Last week, the nearby Cougar Peak fire ignited and burned through 86,000 acres in just a few days and set off another air quality advisory for much of southern Oregon. Firefighters had brought containment up to 6% by Tuesday, though, and were hoping to keep growth to a minimum before a cold front was expected to bring rain by the end of the week.

The rise in smoky days is the continuation of a trend building over the last several years, said Tom Roick, the air quality monitoring manager at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“We had wildfires before but they were fairly discrete, short events. Since 2015, it’s not just that there’s one wildfire, but multiple fires that are resulting in greater impacts,” he said. “We now have a wildfire season that is starting earlier and extending into the early fall.”

A report on fire weather days by Climate Central, a national nonprofit research organization of scientists and journalists, found that the frequency of conditions leading to massive wildfires are increasing.

Fire weather days — defined as days with temperatures above 55 degrees, relative humidity below 20% to 40% depending on the region and winds at 15 mph or above — have risen by at least 100 percent in the eastern half of Oregon since 1970, according to the report.

Kaitlyn Weber, a data analyst and climatologist with Climate Central who worked on the report, said the steady upward march of temperatures, driven by carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, is partly to blame for the increase in fire-friendly conditions.

“The risk level is high,” Weber said. “We’re just waiting for a lightning strike or a spark from a car, and then that turns into a megafire. It’s just something we’re not used to seeing.”

The explosion in acres burned in the western U.S. is not caused by climate change alone, Weber said. Nearly a century of aggressive fire suppression, misguided forest management and a dearth of acreage treated with prescribed burns have left forests in the West teeming with fuel. That fuel — trees, brush, needles, downed logs and underbrush — has been primed to burn by climate change, she said.

“We’re seeing really dry days with really dry fuels so when a fire does spark, it blows up,” Weber said. “They are burning longer and hotter, and the build-up of fuels causes an increase in smoke.”

And while the fires in Oregon this year have been far less destructive than the Labor Day fires of 2020 that burned more than 1 million acres, the smoke has been a more constant presence in the southern part of the state than it was last year.

Compounding catastrophes

Mars Hints, project manager for the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, works with people experiencing homelessness in the Rogue Valley and, as someone who experienced homelessness first-hand, is familiar with how one crisis can lead to another.

When the Almeda fire last year roared through the communities of Phoenix and Talent, between Ashland and Medford, at least 2,300 homes were destroyed, according to Jackson County figures. An estimated three-quarters of those residences were in mobile home parks or belonged to people already surviving on low incomes and Jackson County had been suffering under a housing shortage even before the flames bore down on the towns.

“The fires created a large influx in our unhoused population last year. It’s definitely a snowball effect” Hints said. “People are really struggling.”

One particular area of concern for Hints, whose organization provides roughly 100 meals a day along with water and medical resources, is that many people experiencing homelessness have been exposed to rampant anti-mask misinformation, which is prevalent in southern Oregon. Elected officials have questioned the efficacy of masks and COVID-19 vaccines and the region is home to regular demonstrations against public health measures meant to curb the spread of the virus. In Jackson County 61.7% of adults have been at least partially vaccinated, well below the statewide average of 73.6%.

Some are now hesitant to accept N95 respirators, specifically designed to block the small particles in wildfire smoke, to protect themselves, Hints said.

“I’ll explain that these are different masks, but they don’t want to hear it,” Hints said. “I’ve had people tell me they’ll never wear a mask again. It’s a real issue.”

Hints said wildfire smoke, however thick, is rarely the top concern for people who are looking for a warm meal or a safe place to sleep.

“In a way, it’s sort of a privilege to be concerned about the smoke. People outside have a lot bigger health concerns, largely their own mental health,” Hints said. “All of the things they are dealing with are exacerbated by the smoke in ways they can’t even recognize.”

And Hints worries that once the smoke dissipates, efforts to address the entrenched needs of people experiencing homelessness for permanent housing and medical treatment will fall to the bottom of the priority list.

“The smoke is a very big deal, but these other issues are going to remain. The smoke will go away but will people still care about the unhoused? Will they still care about their mental health?” Hints said. “We need to look at the bigger picture beyond what they’re dealing with right now.”

New rules created for farmworkers

To protect farmworkers from smoke, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration instituted emergency rules last month that required employers to make an effort, whenever feasible, to change work schedules or relocate work if air quality reaches levels of 201 or higher — in the “very unhealthy” category.

If employers can’t do so, they must provide an adequate supply of respirators for workers any time the air quality index goes above 100. Employers are required to alert workers to air quality hazards and train workers who may be exposed to air quality levels above 101 of the health risks of wildfire smoke and emergency procedures in place to protect workers.

Since the rule was put in place in early August, the state has received a handful of complaints about violations from workers in offices and manufacturing facilities, but none from farmworkers.

The complaints don’t tell the full story, though, said Keesee, the program manager at Unete.

The drought in southern Oregon — nearly all of Jackson County is in an “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor — has curtailed the growing season and jobs are hard to come by, Keesee said.

“The pear harvest usually goes until September, but this year it ended Aug. 12,” she said. “People who are used to having another month of income just don’t this year.”

Given the scarcity of work, many workers fear they’ll lose their jobs if they complain about violations of the smoke rule.

“(It’s) fear of retaliation because they are so desperate for any type of employment, they aren’t going to speak up about not getting a mask,” Keesee said. “If you are living in employer-provided housing and you lose your job, you’re done. There’s nowhere to rent so where do you go?”

The overlapping challenges indicate what’s to come as accelerating climate change continues to act as a threat multiplier, Weber said. She noted that as the West was enduring drought and wildfire smoke, the South and East were drying out from deadly hurricanes and flooding.

“We are no longer going to be facing just that one disaster caused by climate change,” she said. “No, you are going to be facing five at once.”

Keesee said that type of rolling disaster, where one catastrophe bleeds into the next, is taking a toll on the mental health of the people she serves.

“People are renting apartments for $1,500 a month and have nothing left. They aren’t able to pay for medical or dental care or buy clothes,” she said. “To see a Latino male ask for mental health help is almost unheard of, but I’ve seen them crying. They are just so fragile.”

Still, Keesee said many of the people she works with have had to endure hard situations in the past and have shown an impressive ability to adapt.

“This community has experienced a lot of hardship in their lives,” Keesee said. “Through even these, the darkest of times for them, their level of resilience is really high. They are confident in their ability to rebuild.”

The state is also making strides to curb climate change. The Department of Environmental Quality is currently drafting rules that would put limits on fossil fuel emissions for some of the state’s biggest sources of greenhouse gases with the goal of an 80% reduction by 2050. Part of the project, known as the Climate Protection Program, is to help rural, low-income people and people of color transition away from traditional fuels to cleaner alternatives.

“We all have witnessed the growing and horrific effects of climate change across Oregon and the nation,” agency Director Richard Whitman said in a statement. “These new programs put Oregon on a path to doing its part to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

But it’s unclear how much worse the challenges posed by climate change are going to get, absent a widespread and aggressive change in how humanity goes about curtailing the carbon dioxide emissions that fuel it, Weber said.

“We are not prepared to handle these compounding risks. The longer we take to address it, the more risks we’re going to have not just to our health, but our property and our economies,” she said. “We know how to do it, we just need to choose to act.”

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