Central Oregon residents got a break Thursday from some of the worst wildfire smoke to settle in the area in years.
But as locals breathed a sigh of relief, the smoky conditions and ongoing wildfire danger prompted the cancellation of an annual event that draws about 2,300 bicyclists from around the state, country and world each year.
The nonprofit Cycle Oregon canceled its Cycle Oregon Classic Ride for the first time in its 30-year history. The 400-plus-mile ride, which costs about $1,000 per person, offers cyclists a fully supported ride that can bring dollars into rural communities. The 2017 ride, set to take place for seven days beginning Sept. 9, would have brought riders through Tumalo, La Pine, Cottage Grove and McKenzie Bridge, according to Steve Schulz, Cycle Oregon’s executive director.
The ride takes place the second week of September because that’s historically the best week of weather. The route generally changes to a different locale around Oregon each year.
But September brings the threat of wildfire. While Cycle Oregon has at the last minute altered its routes because of fire or early snow, it’s never had to cancel the ride entirely.
Schulz said participants, so far, have been understanding. The nonprofit is still figuring out whether those who signed up for the event will be refunded, because many costs that went into planning the event were already incurred.
Air quality wasn’t Cycle Oregon’s only concern. Parts of the route would have gone through areas close to wildfires, including a portion near Crater Lake, Schulz said. It didn’t make sense to bring another 2,600 people into an area already burdened by wildfires, he said. In addition to the approximately 2,300 riders, 300 staff and support people make the ride happen.
“This was a really tough time and tough decision,” Schulz said, adding he and his staff appreciate riders’ understanding of the cancellation.
Even though wildfires and smoke ended up killing this year’s Cycle Oregon, air quality improved for Central Oregonians on Thursday. Low-level evacuation notices, which warned residents near wildfires to be ready to leave, remained in place Thursday, but the acreage burned did not increase dramatically.
In the case of the Milli Fire, the only increase Thursday afternoon was due to backburning that took place within fire lines, according to Susie Heisey, a public information officer with the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center.
Two closures due to the Milli Fire on the McKenzie Pass Highway remained in place Thursday as well. The highway was closed to westbound traffic one mile west of Sisters and both lanes were closed one mile east of the intersection with state Highway 126, according to Peter Murphy, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. There was also a 2-hour, 20-minute delay at U.S. Highway 20 at its intersection with state Highway 22 on Thursday.
In general, smoky conditions that suffocated Central Oregon on Wednesday had lessened by Thursday.
“We’ve got some good air quality here in Bend; also, Sisters is showing a nice little reprieve,” said Peter Brewer, air quality specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
The department’s sliding air quality scale ranges from good to hazardous. Over the past couple days, the air quality has been listed as “very bad” if not “hazardous,” said Mark Bailey, department air quality manager.
Bailey and Brewer said the smoke started to lift Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
Dennis Hull, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton, said westerly winds pushed the smoke out of the area.
While visibility at the Redmond Municipal Airport got as low as three-quarters of a mile Tuesday and Wednesday, by 10 a.m. Thursday, Hull said, visibility in the area was at about 10 miles.
But the relatively improved air quality isn’t expected to last. Hull said a high pressure ridge that has been building for about seven days, will break down for two to three days, then return. Changes in wind direction can also bring smoke back in, he said. A more significant inversion layer is forecast to return as soon as Sunday, clouding the air with wildfire smoke.
Hull said the forecast shows some moisture coming into the region from the south in the latter part of next week, but it likely won’t be enough to bring any rain. Rather, it has a small chance of bringing thunderstorms.
While the air quality has improved temporarily, Bailey said things could change quickly as it’s hot and dry and more fires could pop up. Further, as the smoky air cools at night, it drops and settles in drainages.
Services are available for those experiencing health effects or discomfort from the smoke. Deschutes County Health Services issued a news release Thursday advising those in need of cool, clean air to patronize indoor retailers such as restaurants, movie theaters or bowling alleys. There are also free locations, such as libraries and churches. For a list of free locations to get a break from the smoke, visit www.deschutes.org/health/page/wildfire-smoke-and-health
And while Bailey said things can change at the drop of a hat, it’s good to enjoy the cleaner air while it’s here.
“It looks like we could see a little more improvement,” he said. “We hope. We are all crossing our fingers.”