Wildfire smoke veils Palatine Hill

By Hannah Posey-Scholl

Usually at Lewis & Clark, the days that Mount Hood cannot be seen from the reflecting pool vantage point are the days that rain is forecast. However, starting the school year off, smoke blocked the view instead.

Fires all along the west coast have been raging throughout the summer, running from British Columbia down to California — but in a new twist, Portland got a taste of the flames this summer as well.

Portland resident and hiker Liz FitzGerald reported to The Oregonian that she saw a group of teenagers giggle and videotape as one of them threw a “smoke bomb” into the Columbia River Gorge. A 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington is suspected of starting the fire, but Oregon State Police are still investigating the matter.

Smoke from the gorge filled the air in the Portland area for the first week of September, peaking on Sept. 5 and 6. Early evening on Tuesday the 5th was the worst of it, with the air pollution reaching “very unhealthy” levels at almost five times that of Beijing according to Portland’s gauged Air Quality Index.

Many LC students kept their dorm room windows open throughout the smokey period to fight the suffocating summer heat, but instead it was the particulate matter that was the real health concern.

According to a study by Berkeley Earth, the particulate matter content of 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) that Portland was getting Tuesday evening was comparable to smoking about eleven cigarettes per day.

Unfortunately, the standard face masks some students procured from Student Health Services fail to effectively block the most dangerous part of the smoke. The tiny PM2.5 particulates get into the bloodstream and can cause respiratory and cardiovascular issues.  

To protect students from the smoke, the college moved outdoor events such as the Pio Fair indoors and cancelled outdoor activities.

Among the most affected were student athletes.

“We had to completely scratch one of our workouts on Tuesday and move indoors and do a pool workout,” cross-country runner Jeff Mullins ’18 said. “We have a couple of kids with asthma [on the team], and they would have had a tough time. And even if they didn’t have asthma, the smoke is one of those things where you feel fine during the day often, but if you’re doing strenuous physical activity you’ll get about halfway through your workout and you just won’t be able to complete it.”

The LC football team was also affected. “Because of the poor air quality we had to practice in the gym one day. We weren’t allowed to practice outside. It kinda hurt us because we couldn’t do what we wanted to do — it was more of a mental practice” Melvin Ho’omanawanui ’20 said.

College Outdoors (CO) has been keeping a close eye on the wildfire reports. They were fortunate that the trip locations at the coast and Estacada had preferable air quality during the period of smoke in early September.

“We were totally lucky,” Director of College Outdoors Joe Yuska said. Yuska said that if the fires threaten to interfere with a CO trip, he would keep the trip’s scheduled weekend but move the destination to another location.

“People have already planned to go, and scheduled around it, and they’d like to go to Mt. St. Helens, but if there’s a fire there they would be happy with another big volcano,” Yuska said.

The Columbia gorge fire is not yet fully contained, so LC may get another taste of PM2.5 before the summer’s end. To mitigate the effects of the smoke, The Oregon Health Authority advises Portland residents to stay indoors, keep windows closed, drink plenty of water and spend as much time in an air-conditioned area as possible. Melissa Osmond, the LC Associate Director for Health Promotion, suggests Agnes Flanagan Chapel and Aubrey R. Watzek library as suitable locations.

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