UO students help develop local smoke management plans

With the number of smoky days on the rise in Oregon, communities across the state are in various stages of planning for potential effects from unhealthy air, both from prescribed fires and from wildfires, to help protect the health and welfare of vulnerable populations.

In Southern Oregon, Jackson County is creating a smoke management community response plan with the help of two University of Oregon graduate students. Their work is funded in part by the state Department of Environmental Quality, which awarded grants to 20 local and tribal governments to develop smoke management plans.

Western wildfires have been increasing over the last decade and are expected to become more frequent, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. As a result, Oregon communities are seeing more unhealthy air days. Bend recorded 10 unhealthy air days from 1989 to 2016. From 2017 to 2021, that number jumped to 53 days, including seven hazardous days, according to the DEQ.

In Medford, seat of Jackson County, there were 18 unhealthy days from wildfire smoke between 1985 and 2014. From 2015 to 2021, the city experienced 64 unhealthy days.

Anna Murphy and Stuart Warren are both second-year students at the UO working toward masters’ degrees in community and regional planning and are part of the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement. Murphy and Warren spent the summer remotely gathering background information in Jackson County, including conducting a community survey and talking with different stakeholders.

They are now helping Jackson County officials formulate a smoke management community response plan, which will include steps to communicate with vulnerable populations and the broader community about sheltering from smoke. The students said they hope to complete a first draft by the end of the year.

As climate change leads to drier, warmer weather, and as fire managers conduct more prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads in forests, Oregon residents can expect to see an increasing number of smoky days in the future.

Only a handful of counties have written smoke management plans. Murphy said they reviewed plans created by Wallowa County and the cities of Bend, Ashland and Oakridge.

“They’re very much building upon each other,” she said.

The goal of the plans is to protect the health of community members, Warren said, particularly vulnerable populations, including the unhoused, children, adults over 65, pregnant women and people with respiratory conditions. The Jackson County plan will include sites designated as cleaner air shelters, such as public libraries, churches and other civic spaces where people can take refuge from smoky air.

Jackson County and the city of Medford have a history of working with the UO to develop natural hazard mitigation plans, so it made sense to reach out for help with the new smoke management plan, said Aaron Ott, an emergency manager for Medford.

Murphy and Warren “have been invaluable in gathering data, anticipating challenges, and helping formulate solutions,” he said. Once completed, the plan will address smoke effects in the region and help protect the health of citizens while building wildfire resilience through prescribed burning, he said.

The smoke management community response plans are just one area where the UO policy institute has been helping local communities with planning efforts. For instance, the group has been working with city and county governments on natural hazard mitigation plans as well as wildfire mitigation plans.

In addition, the UO is in the process of establishing a new Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice, which will conduct research driven by community need and help communities get actionable information. The work will be conducted in a collaborative fashion that builds on work being done by local communities, the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon State University and others.