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Wildfires burning all over Oregon have left Crook County choked by a heavy and potentially hazardous cloud of smoke

JASON CHANEY - Prineville residents have spent the past few days of this week under a thick blanket of wildfire smoke that has poured into the community from all over Oregon.

Though no wildfires are burning in Crook County, the area has been blanketed in smoke for roughly a week because of wildfires burning throughout the western half of the state.

As of Thursday, five wildfires remained active on the Willamette National Forest, with the Horse Creek Complex and Whitewater Fire burning 20,710 and 12,500 acres, respectively. In the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon, the Chetco Bar Fire had reached 176,000 acres while the High Cascades Complex was burning about 42,000 acres. The Umpqua North Complex, meanwhile, was consuming another 31,500 acres, and the Miller Complex had so far claimed nearly 29,000 acres.

Closer to Crook County, the Milli Fire west of Sisters was burning about 22,500 acres while the Nash Fire had reached nearly 5,000 acres.

Receiving the most attention in the past week is the Eagle Creek fire, which erupted this past weekend in the Columbia River Gorge between Hood River and Troutdale. The fire had grown to 31,000 acres by Thursday.

Smoke from the more than two dozen wildfires has frequently blown into Crook County, causing the air to reach hazardous levels.

Oregon Health Authority points out that pollutants in smoke can cause burning eyes, runny nose, aggravate heart and lung diseases, and aggravate other serious health problems.

"People should be aware of smoke levels in their area and avoid the places with highest concentrations," said Ann Thomas, MD, public health physician at the OHA Public Health Division. "High temperatures can also increase levels of ozone, a pollutant that can irritate the lungs."

Those who are at more risk than others, including children, the elderly and those with heart or lung diseases — including asthma — are advised to take steps to protect their health. * Avoid areas with heavy smoke, if possible. * If you live in a smoky area and cannot reach an area with less smoke, the best thing to do is go inside, and keep the windows and doors closed when smoke levels are heavy. If you have one, run your air conditioner with the fresh air intake valve closed. * If you have to pass through smoke, keep the windows closed and set your car's air conditioning to recirculate. * Stay hydrated. * Follow medical advice or breathing management plans if you have a heart or lung condition. Call your health care provider if your condition gets worse when you are exposed to smoke.

The rash of wildfires has seized the attention of lawmakers at both the state and federal level, who have demanded action be taken to not only increase funding to fight the fires but improve forest management and prevent such outbreaks in the future.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney Tuesday called on Congress to immediately address the needs for resources to battle wildfires in Oregon and throughout the western U.S.

"My state is on fire. Washington, Idaho, California and Montana are on fire," he said. "Congress needs to act. They need to act now."

Courtney pointed out that 8,000 men and women are fighting fires in Oregon, nearly one-third of all the firefighters currently deployed in the United States. National resources in the state are tapped out, he added, and more federal funds are needed to fight the fires.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced plans Wednesday to include emergency funding for wildfires in a disaster bill that is expected to move through Congress this month.

"All across our state we are experiencing devastating wildfires," he stated. "I'm praying for the affected communities, and for the brave men and women who are out there on the front lines fighting these fires.

"In Washington, D.C., I'm doing everything I can to make sure Oregon communities have the resources and manpower they need to fight these fires now, and to recover after they're extinguished." 

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said enough is enough regarding the escalating prevalence of wildfires in Oregon and wants Congress to address how forests are managed and how fires are fought, including policies that affect firefighting in wilderness areas.

"When people in Central Oregon, the Gorge (or just about anywhere on the east side this summer) are told to stay inside, it's time for a change in federal policy so that decisions to let fires burn include a review of how doing so will add carbon and toxic pollutants into the atmosphere, threaten habitat and water quality and destroy private timberlands and property," he said.

Walden went on urge the U.S. Senate to stop blocking legislation that has passed the House multiple times that would allow proper forest management and prevent catastrophic fires.

"The House Resources Committee has once again approved legislation — the Resilient Federal Forests Act — that solves the fire borrowing problem, but more importantly, gives foresters and firefighters new tools to help protect our forests, watersheds and air sheds from the kinds of disasters we endured this summer," he said. "I know we're always going to have fires, but we must find better ways to control and extinguish them."

Merkley acknowledged that many are frustrated with current forest management practices and pledged to "continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers to find collaborative solutions and funding to return our forests to health."

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