Salem air hits unhealthy levels due to smoke, haze as heat wave persists

This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. due to worsening air quality.

Air quality in Salem declined Tuesday as a heat wave persisted and the smell of smoke lingered in the air.

Salem’s air quality was rated unhealthy as of 2 p.m. Tuesday due to fine particulate matter. The air quality index was 153.

The Lookout and Bedrock wildfires burning east of Eugene in Lane County are putting smoke into the air, impacting air quality in Salem, according to a smoke alert issued Tuesday morning by the U.S. Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program.

Unhealthy air quality means people should limit outdoor activity. Health effects are more pronounced for sensitive groups, meaning people with heart and lung conditions or diabetes, as well as children and older adults, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration.

An air quality advisory for ozone is in effect in the central Willamette Valley and Portland metro area through 11 p.m. Wednesday. Salem wasn’t included in a separate advisory issued Tuesday morning for wildfire smoke because meteorologists believed the smoke would remain higher in the air and not impact the ground.

“That is higher than what we were expecting,” Greg Svelund, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said about Salem’s air quality Tuesday afternoon. He said forecasters with DEQ would re-evaluate Salem and Marion County Tuesday night or Wednesday morning for possible inclusion in a smoke alert.

Temperatures remained near triple digits Tuesday, with the National Weather Service in Portland predicting a high of 105 degrees at the Salem Municipal Airport. Wednesday’s high is forecasted at 101 degrees, with temperatures expected to cool starting Thursday.

Wildfire smoke can reduce temperatures outside, something the National Weather Service observed Monday in Eugene, said Gerald Macke, meteorological technician at the service’s Portland office.

“There’s more of a layer above the surface. It reflects the heat and keeps it bouncing down to the surface,” he said. But he said it’s not clear if Salem has enough smoke in the air to observe the effect.

Beginning Thursday, general weather conditions in the Willamette Valley will improve as high-pressure marine air off the coast migrates inland, bringing cooler temperatures and movement that will help clear smoke from the air.

“We get a little bit better every day, temperature-wise,” Macke said. “We’ll see meaningful benefits Thursday, Friday. That’s when the improvements should be more pronounced.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.