Local health officials said they support a new bill by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden that would allow Southern Oregonians to have their hotel stays covered when they flee wildfire smoke.
Wyden explained the details of his proposed Clean Air Refugee Assistance Act during a press conference Thursday at the Jackson County Health and Human Services building in Medford.
“What we’re seeing in Oregon and the West is what amounts to clean air refugees when we have these unhealthy days,” Wyden said.
His act would allow people to apply for relief through an existing Federal Emergency Management Agency program that covers temporary lodging for people who can’t immediately return home after a disaster. The program pays the hotel bills of people displaced by disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes — but not those concerned about the health impacts of breathing smoke.
“Something’s got to be done when young people and senior citizens are afraid of opening the front door because they think they’ll be engulfed with smoke and dirty air,” Wyden said.
He said he considers the wildfire smoke problem a public health emergency.
Wyden didn’t have a cost estimate for the proposal. He said details would have to be worked out about who could apply for the lodging assistance. He also didn’t have an estimate for how many people would apply.
A few weeks ago, the Grants Pass Daily Courier polled its readers and found 46 percent said they had already traveled out of the area specifically to escape smoke.
So far this summer, Medford has endured 24 days in which smoke levels have been categorized as unhealthy or worse. That compares to 15 such days in 2017, 12 days in 2015 and 9 days in 2013, according to air quality data.
Those days don’t include smoke levels categorized as unhealthy for sensitive groups — such as senior citizens, babies and children, pregnant women and those with health conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
“We are in week seven of almost continuous smoke in Southern Oregon,” said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County’s health director.
On days ranked as unhealthy for sensitive groups, staying outside for the day is the same as smoking five cigarettes, he said.
When smoke pushes air quality into the unhealthy range, the health impacts are even worse.
“We’ve had days this summer that were the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” Shames said.
Tiny smoke particles embed themselves deeply inside people’s airways and can even enter the bloodstream, becoming irritants to the heart and other organs, Shames said.
He said people have limited options for dealing with persistent wildfire smoke. They can stay inside and cycle indoor air through a high efficiency particulate air filter, where a mask outdoors — which has its own negative health effects and isn’t entirely effective — or leave the area.
“Clearly, most of our citizens don’t have the capability of doing all those things, so I really do appreciate that the senator is giving us another tool in our toolbox to fight this problem,” Shames said.
Several years ago when Southern Oregon was faced with significant wildfire smoke, the Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center’s emergency department saw a big influx of people suffering from extremely sore throats, headaches, burning eyes and significant respiratory distress. Smoke likely contributed to heart attacks and strokes, although direct impacts are hard to know, said Dr. Courtney Wilson.
This summer, the emergency department isn’t seeing the same type of influx, she said.
Wilson said doctors are speculating that people with the means to leave town are doing so.
However, many people don’t have the financial ability to escape the area. It’s those people who would be most helped by Wyden’s bill, she said.
Dr. Justin Adams, chief medical officer with La Clinica, said the most vulnerable patients are those without sufficient financial resources who are also categorized as being in sensitive groups.
He sees the young and elderly, people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and others suffering. Some are holed up inside trailers without HEPA filters.
Adams said persistent smoke is having many impacts. Patients struggling with weight issues who had been on a good trajectory because they were exercising are now gaining weight. Asthmatics are becoming depressed because they can’t get out and walk.
Adams said the Clean Air Refugee Assistance Act could make a difference.
“As the senator himself pointed out, it’s a small part of a much bigger, larger picture of what needs to be done about the wildfires in the West,” he said. “But I just love the idea of my patients having access to the same kinds of things that I have access to. I’ve spent a lot of this summer working hard during the week and then packing up my family on the weekend to go someplace where the air is clean.”
Wyden said his other efforts to address wildfires include eliminating the practice of borrowing from wildfire fuels reduction project money to fight wildfires, urging the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the hazardous fuels backlog in forests, pushing for air tanker availability and securing $7 million to train National Guard members to fight wildfires.
Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said lodging assistance would be a great way to take care of vulnerable people.
“But what people really want is to be able to stay in their homes and not have to leave,” he said. “Businesses and tourist attractions want to see people coming to Medford and Jackson County — not leaving.”
Wildfire smoke has led to performance and event cancellations for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Britt Music & Arts Festival, the Medford Rogues baseball team, running and high school sports events and more. Sections of the Rogue River have been closed at times, impacting businesses dependent on rafting and fishing.
In the short term, Dyer said Southern Oregon needs more air resources to combat wildfires when they first start, especially large capacity helitankers.
In the long term, Dyer said fuels have to be reduced in overstocked forests, where tree density has become too high and underbrush is taller and thicker than ever.
Dyer said forest roads must be kept open so firefighters can use them as fuel breaks and to access wildfires.
Southern Oregon was hit with a massive lightning storm on July 15 that sparked more than 100 fires. Most were put out quickly during initial attacks, but others grew into wildfires that have burned through more than 228,500 acres in the area so far.
Ground firefighters working on July 15 inundated dispatchers with calls for air support. Although aircraft were flying nonstop in and out of the Medford Air Tanker Base, some fire crews were told they had to wait in line for air support because all aircraft were busy.