Oregon Residents Battle Smoke Due to Western Wildfires

by Shelby Scott

2021 was an intense year for wildfires out West, with others just as devastating taking place the year before. Altogether, the West has seen massive destruction as a result of these fires, though many have intensified as a result of climate change. As such, wildfire season has become longer and more intense. That said, Oregon residents are left battling the previously unprecedented amounts of smoke from the blazes.

Overall, The Bulletin states that longer wildfire seasons have extended the season of poor air quality in Central OR. The outlet states 2021’s wildfire season majorly affected Bend, OR especially. This year saw one of the longest smoke seasons in state history.

According to Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, “The wildfire smoke lasted longer in Bend (in 2021) than any year on record, but the intensity of wildfire smoke wasn’t as bad…as last year.”

That said, this year saw the city experience a significant 18 days of air quality deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” 2020 only saw 12 days with such extremes.

However, as for the state’s wildfire smoke intensity, the case is totally different. Last year, Bend experienced six days where air pollution was concluded “hazardous,” while 2021 only experienced one day.

Fortunately for the far northwestern state, central OR actually saw relatively few acres burned last year. Wildfire smoke, therefore, came from fires in other regions of the state. That’s in addition to fires that spread across various other parts of the West.

Wildfire Smoke Has Farreaching Effects

Overall, it’s natural to assume both wildfires and the resulting smoke possess their own detriments and dangers. However, those from the smoke can appear less obvious compared to those posed by actual blazes.

As Outsiders well know, smoke from wildfires has physically damaging potentiality for humans. However, that’s in addition to local economic impact.

As for the physical detriments, the news outlet reports that wildfire smoke carries particulate matter 2.5 microns or less. Far more important than the technical terms, this just means inhaling the smoke allows it to penetrate one’s lungs and enter the bloodstream. It then increases the chances for heart and lung disease, defects, etc. Particularly vulnerable groups include those battling cardiovascular or respiratory disease, elderly populations, children, and pregnant women.

Economic effects are almost as brutal. Overall, Bend locations and venues including hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops saw financial loss during the smoke season. The wildfire smoke rapidly deterred typically large groups of tourists and recreationists.

In order to combat some of the loss, local business owners began improvising. Some revamped event schedules while others identified substitute activities and occupations for visitors.

For example, the Sisters Folk Festival saw cancelation twice due to smoke in recent years. To combat further cancelations, organizers moved the event from September to October away from the heights of smoke season.

Additionally, Samuel Johnson, general manager at Bend’s Oxford Hotel, said his employees truly became “savvy smoke guides.”

Johnson explained that, with heavy smoke days, employees began sending patrons to areas across Central OR where they were less affected by wildfire effects.

“Obviously, this isn’t sustainable for long periods of time or when the entire area is blanketed,” Johnson admitted, “but this past year especially we were able to shuffle people around based on air pocket quality.”