North Wasco County schools closed Thursday because of poor air quality, which reached hazardous levels Wednesday night before lowering this morning to “unhealthy” levels.
“We evaluate a number of different factors when considering school closure, including the disruption of education and family life this causes,” said District 21 Superintendent Candy Armstrong.
“Before making this decision, we want to be sure the conditions are serious enough to warrant this disruption, and in this case we believe they are. Our top concern is for the health and well-being of our students.”
Only one of the district’s schools is equipped with central heating and air conditioning (HVAC), which can be used to help filter air in situations like this, the district said in a press release.
“So conditions inside the buildings are hot, stuffy and smoky—not an environment conducive to learning. And some children, especially those with chronic health conditions, are at more risk from adverse effects than others,” the release stated.
The smoke is from the Eagle Creek fire in the west end of the gorge.
A website that monitors air quality around the world, and uses data from Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, showed the air quality level in The Dalles peaked at 430 late Wednesday night, according to the PM10 air quality index, which is a measure of coarse dust particles in the air. Any number above 300 is considered hazardous. It lowered to 126 Wednesday morning.
Tuesday afternoon, air quality readings were in the “very unhealthy range.”
Smoky conditions and poor air quality are expected to continue for at least the next few days, according to a press release from the North Central Public Health District.
“We’re recommending that people don’t do anything outside. We’re at very unhealthy levels,” said Teri Thalhofer, director of the health district.
“People need to try to stay inside, as best they can,” she said.
“Keep your doors and windows closed, don’t smoke, don’t vacuum [to avoid stirring particles already in the home], don’t run your wood stove. Don’t run gas powered equipment that doesn’t need to be run because it all just adds to the layers” of pollutants.
The health department recommends drinking plenty of water, since staying hydrated can keep the airway moist, which will help reduce symptoms of respiratory irritation such as scratchy throat, runny nose and coughing.
Avoid driving in smoky areas. If you have to, keep windows rolled up, and if you use air conditioning, set your system on recirculate to avoid bringing smoke into your car.
Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant materials, a health department press release stated.
Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases, it stated.
The air quality webpage, aqicn.org, states health implications for “very unhealthy” air quality are “health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.”
For hazardous readings above 300, it states “everyone may experience more serious health effects.”
In very unhealthy conditions “active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit outdoor exertion.”
Under hazardous conditions, everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.
Thalhofer said the most effective masks to wear are N95 masks.
“But to work well they have to be fit tested and fit testing isn’t something that’s available to the general public.”
They don’t filter toxic gases and vapors, but they do filter 95 percent of smoke particles when properly fitted.
“If they’re not fit correctly it may provide a false sense of security and it can make it more difficult to breathe if you have certain medical conditions,” Thalhofer said.
She said just three or four people had called the health department with questions.
At Mid-Columbia Medical Center, public information officer Athena Miller said Tuesday afternoon that the emergency department has not seen an increase in cases because of smoke in the areas.