'Invinsible' Victims
When Open-Season Burning Begins, Some Residence with
Smoke Allergies are Forced to Stay Inside
by Paul Fattig
(Taken from Mail Tribune, February 27, 2005 issue)

JACKSONVILLE ó When B.J. Trefren hit the links Wednesday morning at Quail Point Golf Course in Medford, she paused for a moment to watch tendrils of smoke begin to rise from the hills cradling Jacksonville.

At the sight of the open burning, her spring fever fueled by blue skies and balmy weather went up in smoke.

"I knew right then that when I got back to Jacksonville that I would have to stay in the house the rest of the day," said the Jacksonville resident.

"Itís very upsetting that I canít go outside my own home on a beautiful day because they are burning," she added. "I love being outside."

The retired office worker has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an ailment that can literally take your breath away. The components of the disease can include asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. She has all three ailments.

"There are a lot of people worse off than me," she said. "But for anybody with breathing problems, this pollution can be deadly. We are the invisible ones."

Invisible from the standpoint that many become housebound by the smoke or donít outwardly show they are susceptible to becoming sick, unless theyíve reached the point they have to be hooked to oxygen tanks to breath, she explained.

"There are a lot like me out here in the Rogue Valley," she said.

In fact, 15 to 20 percent of the population have allergies to smoke, according to Dr. Kent Deyarman, an allergist with Deyarman Allergy & Asthma Clinic in Medford.

"Many other people have lung problems or other breathing difficulties," he said. "There are quite a few people who are affected by smoke."

However, the majority of the problems occur in late summer when a wildfire may fill the valley with smoke, he said. Health problems involving open burning tend to be localized, he added.

Regardless, inhaling smoke is not healthy for anyone, even those without lung problems, he said.

"People can tolerate it at first but later it can cause a lot of problems," he said, noting that was the case during the 2002 Biscuit fire. "It got worse each day we had smoke."

Although a human body may be able to filter out many of the larger ash particles, the finer particles that are 30 to 40 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair can damage lung tissue, medical experts warn.

The point, Deyarman said, is that people with emphysema, asthma, bronchitis or any disease that reduces lung function should avoid breathing smoky air. That includes those with heart problems since smoke reduces the bloodís ability to take oxygen into the lungs, he added.

"Common sense should prevail," he said, adding that staying inside, particularly if the building has an air filter, is the wise option.

But everyone, particularly those who regularly do strenuous outdoor exercise, should refrain from breathing in the smoky air when the pollution index climbs into the moderate range or above, he said. The index is carried daily on the weather page in the Mail Tribune.

"The main thing is keep an eye on the pollution index and look out the window," he said.

Trefren, who keeps a close tab on both the index and what is happening outside her window, suffered from asthma as a youngster. But she seemed to grow out of it with age, the former smoker said.

However, in late 2003, her breathing problems returned. She went to the emergency room.

"I hadnít had an asthma attack for all those years, then ó boom! ó I couldnít breathe one day," she said. "It was really frightening."

By January of 2004, she was diagnosed with COPD.

"Itís been a real hard road with this disease," she said. "You have to take your medication, exercise and stay out of polluted air. But I still play golf, downhill ski and walk whenever I can. Being outside is very important to me."

Unless the air is filled with smoke, she said.

"A couple of weeks ago when I came home on a Thursday evening from Medford the smoke was so strong and thick that I thought someoneís house was on fire," she said. "Because of my health problems, I donít have the best nose in the world. So if I can smell something I know itís got to be bad."

She stayed inside that evening as well as the next day.

"I would have preferred to go for a walk," she said.

She later determined the smoke was from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management controlled burn in the Applegate Valley that sent smoke pouring over the mountains to descend on Jacksonville.

The agency conducts prescribed burns on days when conditions will let the fire burn safely while blowing smoke away from populated areas. The wind pattern had changed unexpectedly that day, blowing smoke into Jacksonville, officials said at the time.

The daughter of a timber industry worker, Trefren said she understands the need to reduce the threat of wildfires in the urban interface by thinning brush and small trees.

"I donít want to see any forest fires and I know something has to be done about that," she said.

But she encourages people and agencies to consider alternatives to open burning whenever possible.

For instance, she and her husband, Wayne, plan to rent a chipper to get rid of woody debris theyíve cut from a lot adjoining their property. The machine will turn the debris to mulch.

"People need to remember there are other options instead of burning," she said. "We donít have to burn as much stuff as we do."

And she urges individuals to check to see whether itís a burn day before lighting a pile of debris.

"When people burn on days they arenít supposed to, it affects everybody, not just people like me," she said. "I know people arenít being cruel or heartless. They just need to think about how their actions impact other people."

Spring burning season begins this week Spring burning season starts Tuesday in areas of Jackson County where open burning and burn barrels are allowed. However, burning is permitted only during daylight hours when air quality is acceptable. Before torching a burn pile, call 776-7007 to hear a daily updated message for Jackson County burning conditions.

No open burning is allowed in the countyís air quality maintenance area from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28. For boundaries on that area, call 774-8207.

No open burning is allowed in Medford or Jacksonville.

Residents who want to burn woody debris must get a burn permit from their local fire department. The permits list the rules for safe burning in each fire district.

The burn season will continue until fire officials declare the start of the annual fire season, an event that could come earlier this year if dry conditions persist.

Here are alternatives to burning:

The state of Oregon offers a 35 percent tax credit on the purchase of wood chippers.

BioMass One can haul wood waste away for a fee: 826-9422.

Compost your leaves and other small debris and get a priceless soil amendment for gardening and landscaping.

A leaf-exchange program is managed through the county; call 774-8207. Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com