HHS declares public health emergency in Oregon due to wildfire smoke

The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in Oregon citing dangerous health conditions caused by smoke stemming from the wildfires burning in the western United States. Photo by Peter DaSilva/UPI

Sept. 17 (UPI) — Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday declared a public health emergency in Oregon due to wildfires raging in the state and much of the western United States.

Azar’s declaration comes after President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration in Oregon and cited poor air quality and extensive smoke produced by the wildfires that can present a “significant health threat” for people with asthma and other lung conditions as well as increasing demands of the healthcare system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working closely with Oregon health authorities and monitoring the needs of healthcare facilities to support their efforts to save lives and protect health during these dangerous wildfires,” Azar said. “With this declaration and waiver, the Trump administration is helping to ensure that Oregonians who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need during this disaster as communities recover.”

Smoke from the wildfires is forecast to enter the atmosphere above Europe by this weekend, according to observations from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

“The fact that these fires are emitting so much pollution into the atmosphere that we can still see thick smoke over [4,970 miles] away reflects just how devastating they have been in their magnitude and duration,” senior scientist Mark Parrington said.

The National Interagency Fire Center said 79 large fires have burned more than 4.4 million acres across 10 states with California, Oregon and Washington reporting the most blazes.

At least 34 people have died in the wildfires as of Tuesday. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported 25 deaths, including 15 in the North Complex fire, five in the LNU Lightning Complex, two in the Slater fire and one each in the CZU Lightning Complex, the August Complex and the Hills fires.

Oregon has reported eight deaths and a 1-year-old child remained the only death in Washington.

The August Complex fire in California’s Tehama County — the largest fire in the state’s history at 817,952 acres — was 30% contained Wednesday, while the deadly North Complex fire has burned 273,335 acres and was 36% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

Oregon’s largest active fire, the Beachie Creek fire, grew to 190,911 acres in Clackamas County and was 20% contained.

New evacuations were issued in Lake County as the 40,316-acre Brattain fire approached the area where officials said conditions were conducive to fire growth.

In Washington, overnight rain showers helped improve air quality in the Puget Sound area but it still remained “unhealthy” with an air quality index of 186 as of Wednesday afternoon.

Estimated rainfall totals of 0.25 inches to 0.8 inches are forecast from Friday Afternoon through Saturday morning and the Washington Department of Ecology said it expects air quality to enter the “good” range by Sunday.


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