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Slow improvement in battle against Oregon fires; skies remain smoky

by Oregon Public Radio staff reports |

A week after wildfires began consuming thousands of acres in western Oregon, firefighters are making progress on some of the most destructive blazes in state history. At least nine people have died; countless homes and businesses have been scorched.

Although forecasters expected smoky skies to start clearing Sunday, that did not happen, and much of the state remains under an air-quality alert. In many cities, smoke levels are expected to remain unhealthy to hazardous through at least Tuesday. Due to uncertainty, forecasts were not issued as of Monday morning.

Several school districts announced closures due to the hazardous air conditions.

The smoke combined with a layer of fog, keeping conditions cool and suppressing fire behavior. Evacuation warnings were lifted for parts of Clackamas County, including Lake Oswego, Wilsonville and Milwaukie.

Officials issued a red flag warning for all of Jackson County yesterday but the feared high winds never materialized. Although new evacuation warnings were issued as the Obenchain Fire burning near Medford moved east, in other areas crews made progress on containment and continued to shore up fire lines.

Almost all of Oregon is covered in thick layers of unhealthy smoke. Researchers and health experts told OPB that having such high levels of smoke for so many people is unprecedented. In most of the West Coast, the air is not safe to breathe.

Experts can’t say it’s the worst smoke event ever to happen, but they all say it’s the worst smoke event they’ve ever seen or heard of – except, perhaps, smoke following the 2019-20 wildfires in Australia. It’s certainly the smokiest Oregon has ever been.

Sunday's air quality index approached “hazardous” across much of the state. While the air quality is expected to improve, it will remain unhealthy in many areas for at least the next few days. Changes in fire behavior, winds and the geography of certain areas could keep some cities and towns at unhealthy levels much longer.