Wildfire pollution obliterates Portland bad air records, and the smoke hasn’t cleared yet

September 16, 2020

Multnomah County remained under a statewide air quality advisory Wednesday, more than a week after smoke began pouring into the Willamette Valley from a series of wildfires in the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges.

Smoky skies in downtown Portland, Sept. 15, 2020

The smoke has resulted in the worst air quality recorded in Multnomah County since the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality began monitoring in 1985. The record was set Sunday, Sept. 13, when the 24-hour average of particulate matter reached 477 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3).

That’s seven times higher than the previous record, set on Sept. 5, 2017, during a wildfire season that included the Eagle Creek Fire. The Air Quality Index ranks particulate measures on a scale from Green, “Good,” to Red, “Unhealthy,” to Maroon, “Hazardous.” During Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge the 24-hour particulate was at 66 ug/m3 and the air quality index reached 157 ug/m3, the Red “Unhealthy” category.

A Green “Good” air quality range is up to 12 ug/m3.

“We’re off the charts. We have never been beyond Red, and we were in Red one time,” said the Multnomah County Health Officer, Dr. Jennifer Vines. “We not only surpassed that, we got to Maroon, the high end of Maroon and then we stayed there.”

The Portland region usually enjoys relatively good air quality — especially for a large metro area, Vines explained. 

Eagle Creek was a wakeup that climate change was affecting Oregon and the region needed to act.

But 2020 should serve as a full-on disaster siren that climate change is fully here, and that taking incremental steps to respond will not be enough. 

 “This [level of pollution] is something you read about in public health textbooks,” Vines said. “You end up seeing excess hospital visits and deaths. I don’t know what health outcomes we will see attributable from this event. We can’t predict.”

For five consecutive days beginning Thursday, Sept.10, Multnomah County saw emergency room visits for asthma-like symptoms far exceed normal levels, increasing by 45 to 50 additional visits on each day of high smoke. In Multnomah County and statewide, these visits comprised about one-in-10 of all visits to emergency departments and urgent care clinics.

Some health effects may not become evident until after the smoke has cleared.

While Multnomah County began seeing incremental improvements Tuesday, the 24-hour average remained extraordinarily unhealthy, at  275 ug/m3, falling after three days in the Maroon hazardous range. Officials expect air quality to remain in the Red, “Unhealthy,” and Purple, “Very Unhealthy” range today, with unhealthy air most of the week.

The Oregon Health Authority Wednesday asked residents to remain indoors and avoid driving to areas with healthier air, to keep roads clear for first responders and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

Relief is coming, Gabriela Goldfarb, Environmental Public Health Director, told viewers Wednesday during a Facebook Live event. 

“Good news is coming soon for Oregon,” Goldfarb said.

Rain is expected beginning Thursday for some parts of the state, which may help flush smoke from the sky and tamp down fires.

“The smoke will clear up for most people in the next couple of days,” she said.

Until then, residents should stay inside with doors and windows closed and check back for updates. Check the Oregon Smoke Blog for air quality updates.