Scientists at the Oregon Institute of Technology were recently awarded a $1 million grant from the federal government that could result in research that improves health outcomes in Southern Oregon due to wildfire smoke.
Since 2019, a team of Oregon Tech scientists has been studying the capacity of hospitals in the Rogue Valley to handle patients arriving with respiratory problems during wildfires when air quality plummets due to wildfires.
“If it’s in what we call ‘the purple,’ which is the really bad air quality, the likelihood that a hospital is going to exceed their capacity goes up to about 70 percent,” Kyle Chapman, an associate professor of sociology and population health at the Oregon Institute of Technology, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Chapman and his colleagues will now expand their focus to include admissions due to heart conditions experienced during wildfires in addition to respiratory illnesses such as asthma, which wildfire smoke can exacerbate.
“We have a feeling that some of these other conditions related to heart disease, which is much more widespread than chronic respiratory diseases, are also a big player here,” he said.
Chapman said looking at how hospital admissions change during wildfires could lead to changes in staffing levels, similar to what is already done during the summer when emergency room visits increase.
The federal grant will also allow the scientists to install new monitors outdoors and inside homes in Klamath Falls that can reveal the chemicals in wildfire smoke, a new area of study that has taken on increasing importance as wildfires grow more intense and spread beyond forests to threaten homes and businesses.
“Instead of only looking at the bulk measurement of how much smoke is in the air … what it’s made up of gives us an indication of where it came from, what sort of things burned in the fire that created the smoke and potentially, how dangerous that smoke is to human health,” said Adelaide Clark, a former associate professor of chemistry at Oregon Institute of Technology who is now on faculty at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.
Last year, Klamath Falls had 38 days where the air quality was found to be unhealthy for all groups of people, tying a record set in 2018 for the city, according to a newly released report on wildfire smoke trends from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
If climate change is making wildfires more intense, extreme heat conditions more common and droughts more prolonged, new policies may need to be crafted to protect public health from wildfire smoke.
“We have all through the state with the heat wave, a much heavier use of our cooling centers,” said Chapman. “It might be a good idea to make sure that those cooling centers are also clean breathing centers.”