Last summer Ashland had to cope with 45 days of smoke at levels consistently reaching unhealthy levels. Stores ran out of face masks, the Department of Environmental Quality air quality website crashed multiple times and citizens and civic leaders struggled to find anything they could do to protect public health — not to mention the economy, as tourism took a hit.
That experience made the city realize that proper preparation is a top priority for this summer. A Fire Prevention Task Force made up of past chamber presidents and current chamber board members, Ashland Fire & Rescue Forestry Division Chief Chris Chambers; and Fire Adapted Communities Coordinator Alison Lerch has been working on creating resources for the community to be better prepared for the likely return of smoke.
Some of these resources include informational videos and PDF documents posted online (www.ashlandchamber.com/smoke and www.ashland.or.us/smoke), and workshops for the community to attend, said chamber Executive Director Sandra Slattery.
A workshop presented in February informed businesses and organizations how to become “SmokeWise,” a term the Ashland YMCA has taken seriously.
Chambers will explain some basics about the ways the smoke effects daily health and simple steps citizens can take to ensure their safety at a free workshop open to the public from 11 a.m. to noon Thursday, June 28, at the YMCA. The workshop is sponsored by the YMCA, Ashland Fire and Rescue and Asante Ashland Community Hospital. Space is limited and so preregistration is required by either calling the YMCA at 541-482-9622 or by stopping by the Y at 540 YMCA Way, near the corner of Ashland Street and Tolman Creek Road.
The workshop is part of a mounting effort by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce and other organizations around town to mount a smoke-mitigation program called “SmokeWise Ashland.”
YMCA Associate Director Laurie Schaaf said after attending the chamber workshop earlier this year the YMCA implemented several practices suggested at the workshop, including ordering a device that measures both indoor and outdoor air quality, air filters for the heating-venting-air conditioning system and six air purifiers for inside. They’re also looking at installing air curtains.
“Air curtain are like if you’re at Costco and you walk into the refrigerated room and you feel that burst of air you walk through, “Schaff said. “It’s nothing to do with temperature, but when the doors are open, it helps with not allowing the outside air to come in.”
“Because we have so many children in our care during the summertime, we want to make sure that we know when to bring them inside and when to regulate their activities,” Schaaf said.
“We have thousands of people that are coming through our door every day and they want to be able to continue exercising, they’re very health conscious and they’re no longer able to do it during the summer when there’s smoke outside,” Schaaf said. “And so, we want to be able to support our community’s healthy lifestyle by having a place where they’re able to come and maintain their optimal health.”
Dr. Diya Mohammad of Asante said it is crucial for people to keep an eye on the air quality index during the summer months, especially those who suffer from respiratory infections and breathing disorders, young children, the elderly and those who perform manual labor outside. (The air quality index can be viewed at oraqi.deq.state.or.us/home/map.)
“We have an elderly population here with a lot of retirement communities which tends to be more susceptible to the risks of smoke exposure,” Mohammad said. “On the West Coast we have a lot of pine trees, and those pine trees actually causes the worst kind of smoke because of the concentration of particulate matter and the chance of it being even carcinogenic.”
He said the best way to ensure health is to limit outdoor exposure during times of immense smoke, have clean or new air filters, turn off the fresh air A.C. intake, limit exercise outdoors and to wear a N-95 face masks (which filters 95 percent of particulate matter).
Chambers said it’s very important to ensure a proper fit of these masks or else they don’t work properly. Instructional videos can be found on the above-mentioned websites. He also said he’s working closely with the YMCA on these “SmokeWise” programs because there is a large population there daily of both the young and elderly, both of which are especially vulnerable to smoke's ill effects .
“The smoky season has the biggest impact on the town and the economy and so we want to prioritize that now to help folks cope with what lies ahead this summer,” Chambers said. “And although we don’t know what that’s going to be for sure, all arrows are pointing to smokier summers with climate change and our forests not being in very good shape in terms of fire danger and hazardous amounts of fuel buildup that’s causing these megafires which put a large amount of smoke in the air.”
Mayor John Stromberg said Ashland is taking big steps towards creating a healthier landscape in conjunction with the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, which in turn will eventually decrease the amount of smoke and risk of fire for the city, as well as creating a plethora of resources for citizens to learn how to deal with the smoke.
He said that after encountering some road blocks from smoke regulators in Oregon, who declined to allow Ashland to continue with controlled burns in and around the watershed because of the smoke it produced. But then the smoke-mitigation program was proposed and is getting off the ground. Essentially, if the city has a smoke-mitigation program, more controlled burning will be allowed, but it hasn’t been entirely approved and confirmed yet.
“This program for the community is so people don’t have to sit here and be victims of smoke that occurs, whether it’s through controlled burning or even more importantly, what happened to us last summer,” Stromberg said. “There are things you can do.”
Slattery said she was invited along with Lerch to speak to the Oregon House of Representatives Economic Development and Trade Committee on May 22 in Salem.
“They presented the Ashland SmokeWise program developed in partnership with the Ashland Chamber (and) Ashland Fire and Rescue with support from Asante Ashland Community Hospital and The Nature Conservancy,” Slattery said. “Members of the committee were particularly interested and impressed in how the leadership and collaboration between the chamber and city was developed and implemented. It wasn’t something they were familiar with in their communities and hoped that the model could be shared throughout Oregon.”
Chambers highly recommends reading the information available on these websites and purchasing both face masks and air filters now — before the smoke hits.
Email Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.firstname.lastname@example.org.