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Wind blows wildfire smoke over Cascades into Portland area, triggering unhealthy readings in Beaverton, Government Camp

Bryan Denson | The Oregonian/OregonLive By Bryan Denson | The Oregonian/OregonLive 

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on August 22, 2015 at 1:12 PM, updated August 22, 2015 at 3:27 PM
Winds blowing smoke from eastern Oregon wildfires blew over the Cascades on Saturday, turning the air in Portland and much of the Willamette Valley into a gray haze and leaving Beaverton and Government Camp with unhealthy air quality.
Much of the smoke is likely to blow back over the mountains when the winds shift eastward, said National Weather Service meteorologist Colby Neuman. But the smoke might worsen in coming hours, he said.
"For those folks that are concerned about air quality," Neuman said, "there is relief in sight that Sunday night or Monday, things might improve."
"It's extremely smoky," said Amber Ackerson, a 59-year-old Southeast Portland resident hiking on Mount Tabor. The air smells smoky and feels gritty, she said. "The sky is yellow and you can barely see downtown from here."
Ackerson said she pays especially close attention to air quality because she sometimes suffers from reactive asthma.
"There is definitely smoke that has arrived from all the fires in eastern Oregon and Washington," said Neuman.  "We can smell it here in our office in Northeast Portland."
The worst of the air quality readings west of the Cascades registered at Government Camp, on the shoulder of Mount Hood, and in Beaverton, where the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's Air Quality Index showed readings  of "unhealthy." From Portland to Silverton, DEQ stations registered moderate air quality. 
State air quality readings are measured from good to hazardous, with unhealthy readings meaning that everyone might begin to experience health effects and that people with breathing issues might suffer more serious problems.
Up and down the Willamette Valley, from Hillsboro to Sweet Home, air quality registered good, according to the DEQ's online air quality maps. But Neuman said he expected that the readings would probably worsen as more smoke blows westward over the mountains, then improve when the direction of the wind reverses. 
Social media has been abuzz about smoke wafting into Portland. Calls about the smoky haze have poured into 911 dispatch centers across the metropolitan, so many that the Sandy Fire District issued a news release asking people not call the emergency line unless they see fire or flames. 
The smoky conditions haven't yet sparked a significant  increase in patients seeking care for asthma or other respiratory ailments, according to area hospitals.
"We're not seeing that right now," said Mary Wilson, nursing supervisor at Mid-Columbia Medical Center, in The Dalles.  But she added that could change if the smoke stays in the air for an extended period.
"If you have exposure over a week, it's going to have a more pronounced effect than if you have a onetime exposure," Wilson said.
Wildfires remain the biggest concern to emergency workers across the region.
The National Weather Service reported that much of the Willamette Valley is in a Red Flag area, meaning that a combination of dry vegetation, low humidity and gusty winds are capable of producing fast moving wildfires.
Staff writer Kristi Turnquist contributed to this report.
-- Bryan Denson
503-294-7614; @Bryan_Denson
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