Oregon gauges health impact of Pole Creek Fire

Report probes effect of Sisters fire on human and forest health

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

State officials are pointing to the Pole Creek Fire as a reason to improve health data collection and an example of why forests need thinning.

The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Forestry teamed up to author a 26-page report, released earlier this month, about the fire’s impacts on public health and streams running through the forest. Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, requested the report from the agencies last year and gave them a February deadline.

The largest wildfire in Central Oregon in 2012, the Pole Creek Fire burned more than 41 square miles of Central Oregon woods late that summer and early fall. Smoke from the fire degraded the air quality in Sisters, particularly during a nearly weeklong stretch in mid-September when the air reached levels deemed hazardous by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The smoke also caused the air quality in Bend to reach levels considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.

In evaluating the public health impact of the fire, health officials looked at hospital discharge data from around Deschutes County to see if the fire caused an increase in smoke-related ailments.

“And we did not find any difference in hospitalizations for those conditions for that time and the same time the year prior,” said Dr. Dave Farrer, a toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority who worked on the report.

They also examined county death certificates and noted more deaths — 14 compared to four — due to chronic respiratory disease between Sept. 8 and Oct. 2 in 2012 than in 2011, but Farrer said it is unclear whether the increase in deaths was a result of the smoke.

All the 2012 deaths occurred more than 20 miles from Sisters, where the smoke was worst.

To better understand the health impact of a wildfire as it is happening, state health officials are trying to implement a real-time data program that collects information from emergency rooms and urgent care facilities around the state. Participation in the program is voluntary.

“We really do want hospitals to do it,” Farrer said.

In examining the impact of the Pole Creek Fire on fish, wildlife and aquatic habitat, state foresters reviewed maps and data showing how severe the fire charred the soil and how intensely it burned along creeks. Along with the Pole Creek Fire’s namesake, Alder, Park, Soap, Snow, Trout and Whychus creeks flow through the burn area.

The fire burned entire forest stands in 40 percent of the Pole Creek Fire burn area, partially killed woods on 36 percent and only spread through underbrush on 24 percent, according to the report.

“This fire apparently burned very hot,” Teresa Alcock, a fire program analyst at the Oregon Department of Forestry who worked on the report.

She said decades of extinguishing wildfires, as was the U.S. Forest Service strategy throughout most of the 1900s, left the woods around Sisters prone to larger and more severe wildfire.

Among their recommendations in the report, state foresters said forest managers should continue efforts to lower the likelihood of big, intense fires through forest thinning and prescribed fire efforts.

The Sisters Ranger District of the Deschutes National Forest, which oversees the forest burned in the Pole Creek Fire, is already doing much of what the state is recommending, said district ecologist Maret Pajutee . The district has also conducted its own extensive study of the fire’s impacts on creeks.

Like Alcock, she said the fire serves as an example of why thinning projects are needed.

“We’ve been suppressing fire for 100 years and it’s catching up with us,” Pajutee said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com