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Work will also continue on meeting EPA and DEQ air quality thresholds during winter inversions

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The local air quality committee wants to do a better job of warning residents when air quality is too poor to spend time outdoors during to wildfires.

When local leaders formed an air quality committee in 2014, they did so to comply with EPA standards and avoid potential penalties.

That concern has since been alleviated, but the committee is now turning its attention to wildfire smoke and how to better communicate with the public when air quality becomes unhealthy or even hazardous.

Committee chairman Phil Stenbeck noted that Prineville experienced its worst wildfire season, from a smoke standpoint, in at least 25 years.

"We had fires going on to the north, south, east and west and when the wind changed, we got smoke from another fire," he said. "It took our (air quality index) numbers above 100 multiple days over three weeks, sometimes in the 230s."

The committee realized, as the air quality worsened during the summer, that its members could have done a better job of coordinating with various public entities to make them aware of the health risks the smoky air presents.

"We could have reached out and notified more folks about it," Stenbeck said, "so we are focusing on a program now where we are doing outreach, but we are also including them as part of our air quality committee."

Stenbeck said the effort approaches the air quality issue from a more health-related view as opposed to just meeting an EPA and DEQ standard.

"At the end of the day, the air quality committee is about improving air quality to meet the national standard and keeping people healthy," he said.

Now that the wildfire smoke has likely disappeared for the rest of the year, the committee is also focusing on ensuring the air stays clean enough during the inversions caused by cold, wintry weather.

They will continue to coordinate a Call Before You Burn program that has helped the community consistently lower particulate levels year-round. The air quality index has dropped from an average of 44 in 2014, to 29 in 2015 and 24 in 2016, well below the national standard of 35.

"Crook County Fire and Rescue looks at wind speed, air temperature and ceiling height every day and makes a forecast on whether you should be burning (outdoors) or not," Stenbeck explained, adding that the new program also included expansion of potential burn days from four days a week to seven. "Dilution is the solution to the pollution," he said.

This fall, the committee will host a free yard debris day where residents can get rid of leaves, branches and other items they might normally burn. The event will be held on Nov. 4, at Davidson Field where three large dumpster will be provided. Those dumpsters will later be taken to Crook County Landfill.

Also, the committee is planning to start a new messaging program regarding wood stove use. Similar to the Call Before You Burn program, people will be notified when an air inversion is expected. Those who use wood heat would be asked to utilize a secondary heat source if possible on those days. Stenbeck stressed that the program would be completely voluntary.

"It's just one more way we are trying to get more particulate out of the air," he said.

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