5-3-1 Visibility Index

If visibility is:

More than 5 miles

air quality is generally good.

Less than 5 miles

air quality is unhealthy for young children, adults over 65, pregnant women and people with heart disease, lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness. These groups should limit outdoor activity.

Less than 3 miles

air quality is unhealthy for everyone. Young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness should limit outdoor activity.

Less than 1 mile

air quality is unhealthy for everyone, and everyone should avoid any outdoor activities.

For more information visit oregon.gov/deq/aq/Pages/Wildfires-Visibility.aspx

Smoke from wildfires blanketed the Bend and Sisters landscapes on Tuesday, a visible reminder of poor air quality, as if the heavy burning smell weren’t enough.

For fitness-minded locals and tourists looking to run, bike and hike, smoky conditions can put a damper on outdoor expeditions. Experts expect air quality in Bend and Sisters to improve Wednesday and Thursday, then for smoky conditions to return Friday through Sunday.

Smoke in Bend isn’t coming just from the Milli Fire near Sisters — it’s a combination of a number of wildfires burning to the west and southwest.

The Environmental Protection Agency considered Bend’s air quality unhealthy until Tuesday afternoon, when the agency’s website lowered that status to unhealthy for sensitive groups. Air quality can range from good to hazardous on the index.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, meanwhile, still placed Bend and Sisters at unhealthy status on its air quality map online as of about 5 p.m. Tuesday. An unhealthy status, while unpleasant, isn’t unusual for Central Oregon during wildfire season.

Neither are the closures that go with it. Parts of the Pacific Crest Trail have been closed due to wildfires, including the Milli Fire, and around Sisters that closure has been evident.

Jinny Reed, assistant fire management officer with the Deschutes National Forest Sisters Ranger District, said she’s seen a number of Pacific Crest Trail hikers along U.S. Highway 20. Some refuse to hitch a ride, viewing the highway detour as part of the hike they are challenging themselves to do.

Part of Reed’s role is setting up and manning the air quality monitors around Central Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reports the concentration of fine particulate matter in the air based on measurements from the special monitors. There is a permanent monitor at the Deschutes National Forest Sisters Ranger District Office, and Reed recently installed two more mobile monitors: one in Redmond and one in Black Butte Ranch.

An average summer day with good air quality in Central Oregon might read about 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter. At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the monitor in Sisters reported 566 micrograms per cubic meter, according to Mark Bailey, a Bend-based air quality manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The concentration in Bend and Sisters continues to fluctuate depending on wind patterns, pressure systems and the time of day.

“This is normal when we have substantial fires in the Cascades,” Bailey said of the air quality. “We had this kind of situation with the Pole Creek Fire in 2012.”

That year, the fire burned until snow fell, Bailey said.

“This is bad, but it can get worse,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t.”

That’s why it’s important for people to pay attention to air quality before deciding to go out for a run, Bailey said. He’s had healthy, adult friends who recently got caught in smoke while out running or mountain biking. One ended up in bed for a few days, sick from the effects of the air quality.

Bailey recommends using a couple methods to check air quality. A person can visit www.deq.state.or.us/aqi to find the air quality index map, or use the 5-3-1 Visibility Index. The 5-3-1 stands for the miles a person can see. The shorter the distance a person can see, the less healthy it is to be active outdoors.

Bailey said it can be easy to use landmarks, such as Pilot Butte or Awbrey Butte in Bend, to consider visibility. Pilot Butte happens to be about a mile from his office, he said, so he can use it as a 1-mile marker for visibility in smoky conditions.

He also said the Oregon Health Authority’s guidance for students’ outdoor activities during wildfires is actually great guidance for adults, too.

Heather Kaisner, a Des­chutes County Health Services health information officer, agreed.

“I tend to encourage people to look at the air quality index at DEQ,” Kaisner said. “When we’re in the unhealthy range, similar to students, consider limiting outdoor activities.”

Kaisner reminds people that when staying indoors, it’s important to make air quality inside healthy, too. She recommends avoiding smoking cigarettes inside, lighting candles or stirring up dust by vacuuming.

“Another big factor is staying hydrated,” Kaisner said, especially when temperatures rise.

Temperatures are expected to reach the high 90s in Bend, Redmond and Sisters starting Friday and through the weekend. Redmond is predicted to reach 101 degrees Saturday and Sunday, according to Joe Solomon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Pendleton Office.

Shawn Jacobs, a National Weather Service incident meteorologist assigned to the Milli Fire, said that beginning Wednesday, winds coming into the area will improve smoke conditions in Bend and Sisters.

“Wind tends to act like a blender in the atmosphere,” he said. “If you can mix some of that smoke upwards, it can move the smoke.”

The wind won’t fully clean up the air, Jacobs said, but air quality should be better Wednesday and Thursday. Then, as pressure builds into the weekend, Bend and Sisters will have a return of smoky skies, he said.

While most of the smoke in Sisters is from the nearby Milli Fire, the smoke in Bend is coming from a combination of fires, Jacobs said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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