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EPA funds University of Oregon's new center that will research wildfire smoke

Early morning smog renders poor visibility to the corner of Willamette and 29th, Oct. 8, 2022.
Brian Bull
Early morning smog renders poor visibility to the corner of Willamette and 29th in Eugene on Oct. 8, 2022.

Efforts to understand the effects and risks of wildfire smoke have received an $800,000 boost. The money comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and will support University of Oregon’s new Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice Center.

A team of students and faculty are building on research already done through the Ecosystem Workforce Program, a joint venture between the UO and Oregon State University.

Cass Moseley is a research professor and senior policy advisor for the EWP, and will head the new center. She said recent incidents in the region, including the 2020 Labor Day fires, have stepped up the need for this research. Many parts of Oregon, including the southern Willamette Valley, were choked with smog for nearly two weeks.

“(Those fires) were a real wake-up call around the perils of wildfire smoke,” Moseley told KLCC. “And we saw this fall in Oakridge, several weeks of highly dense smoke as that the fire there settled into that valley and really stayed. And that community spent a lot of time and energy responding to that smoke event.”

The money comes just ahead of the 2023 wildfire season, and was announced by U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden. The Oregon Democrats say they’ve secured this funding to help communities be better prepared for wildfire smoke events.

In a joint release, Wyden and Merkley say data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality shows unhealthy air quality days due to wildfire smoke have increased sharply since 2015.

The Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice Center will focus on community and household planning and preparation, ways to best communicate smoke risks and protective actions to the general public, and developing effective planning, preparation, and response during smoke events.

One area of interest is what toxins are released when manmade structures burn, as opposed to forests. Much research has focused on smoke released by burning timber and wooden structures, but less so with plastics, glass, fuels, and other synthetic materials.

Mosely said with regional wildfires getting larger and more intense, exposure to smoke is also increasing. She added that it’s important for researchers to learn how to help communities and governments adapt.

Hazy smoke over fire response camp in valley.
Smoke at the Cedar Creek Fire Incident Command Post in Oakridge, Oct. 15, 2022.

“We know fire is going to continue to happen,” she said. "It's a natural part of the ecosystem in the West. And with climate change, fire’s getting bigger. People increasingly talk about mega fires and so how do communities adapt to and become more resilient to the fire and the smoke that those fires create?”

Moseley said the center has three co-investigators and a principal investigator leading the group, as well as research assistants and graduate and undergraduate students helping.

Health officials have expressed concern about long-term effects of breathing particulate matter, especially for the very old, the very young, and those with health conditions.

©2023, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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