By Tom Henderson
POLK COUNTY — It may not feel like it with the Air Quality Index firmly in the unhealthy to hazardous range early this week, but Polk County lucked out with the wildfires raging through the Northwest.
Ben Stange, the fire chief at Polk County Fire District No 1, said only one alert has been issued for the county. That alert was to alert people that there are no alerts.
No fires. No evacuations.
That doesn’t mean people should get out and take a brisk jog along Highway 99W. Air quality is supposed to improve gradually this week, but it has been something of a roller coaster. “It’s pretty much everywhere,” Stange said. “Being inside doesn’t feel much better than being outside.”
Starting off as “very unhealthy” Monday morning, it spiked to “hazardous” — returning to “very unhealthy” by Tuesday morning. Stange said that means people should stay indoors and shield themselves from the air as much as possible.
Children in particular, with their often delicate and fragile respiratory systems, should remain indoors, he added. “I won’t pretend to be an environmental scientist in any way, but what we worry about the most is the strain of physical activity on people with heart and lung conditions,” he said.
Jacqui Umstead, the public health administrator for the Polk County Health Department, said she similarly advises people to stay indoors. They should also insulate their doors and windows, she added. “The more that can you insulate the doors and windows from the unhealthy air coming in, the better,” she said.
People worry about the possible long-term health consequences of breathing in smoke from the wildfires. They’re not wrong to be concerned, Umstead said. “That is why there’s the recommendation to stay out of it as much as possible,” she said. “You want to avoid damage from those possible long-term consequences.”
The National Weather Service’s air quality alert remains in effect through the end of the week. “Unfortunately, you’re going to to have to be sedentary for awhile,” Stange said.
However, he added there is good news.
“We were still on sort of high alert throughout the weekend, but the winds died down the the humidity kicked in,” he said Monday afternoon. “The ground is still very dry. We’ll feel better once we have the new weather system kicking in.”
Most of Polk County faces very little wildfire risk due to its geography, Stange said. A buffer of farmland and urban development generally keeps wildfires at bay.
Falls City and more forested rural areas face the greatest risk.
Still, Stange said, the devastating wildfires serve as a reminder of the importance taking common-sense precautions. “Prepare your home for a wildfire, making sure trees and branches are cut back a ways from your home,” he urged
He also recommended using leaf blowers and cleaning roofs to make sure homes are free of flammable debris.
Mariah Prescott the administrative assistant for Southwestern Polk County Rural Fire Protection District. recommended keeping such debris at least 30 feet way from residences.
“We usually recommend wood piles are removed away from the house during the summer, basically creating a perimeter,” she said.
Stange urged county residents to sign up for regular alerts at CivicReady at https://www.co.polk.or.us/sheriff/civicready. Police and fire agencies throughout the county joined forces in the CivicReady program last year to provide coordinated alerts in case of emergencies.
“If we were doing any kind of evacuations, for any reason that program will be the quickest and most reliable source for people to get that information,” Stange said.
“It’s a good time to sign on to that because people are thinking about it,” he said.
Stange posts regular video updates online about the wildfires. The video he posted Wednesday, Sept. 9, reminded area residents that numerous local firefighters are out of the area to help combat the fires. “We are able to send those resources out of district only after ensuring we’re still able to respond to the emergency calls here in within our fire district,” he said.
However, he added, county fire district are still stretched thin. “Realistically, we don’t have 100 percent of the resources that we normally do,” he said.
Stange said local firefighters are still responding well. “We’re continuing to fully staff our career positions,” he said. “We also have many volunteers making themselves exceedingly available, coming down to the station just to make sure they’re available for calls locally.”
If people want to help, he said, the best thing they can do is stay indoors and stay safe. “The safer you can be, the less taxing it it is on all of our jurisdictions right now,” Stange said. Staying indoors is the key, he added.
“Those Covid -19 masks we’re all wearing aren’t going to be protect you from the fire and smoke,” he said.
There have been several fire calls in recent weeks in Polk 1, including powers lines causing fires. Fortunately, Stange said, those fires have been extinguished quickly. He added he’s equally grateful for the low number of medical calls. “We’re relieved we haven’t seen an uptick in our respiratory calls,” he said.
The same is true in SW Polk, said Prescott. “In the last couple of days, we haven’t seen a lot of our calls,” she said. “Most of our calls are from concerned citizens who saw dust or smoke.”
Both Prescott and Stange said most of Polk County is ideally situated when it comes to the wildfires. “We’re in a really fortunate position in that we don’t have any fires,” Stange said.
Prescott said residents can thank the area’s topography. “Here in the valley and even toward the coast, we have a higher humidity,” she said. “If there is there a fire, someone catches it while it’s small. Extra winds in the rest of the state made a the perfect storm for a small thing to take off very quickly.”
Meanwhile, Stange said, the morale of the local firefighters returning from the wildfires remains high. “Even though they have seen some pretty bad scenes down at the fires, they also saved some structures, which is motivating to them,” he said.