Air Quality Impacts SOU Athletics


Ashland’s Air Quality Index (AQI) rose into the Red, Unhealthy Level and Purple, Very Unhealthy Level this week. A Red Level means “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.” A Purple AQI is considered a health alert and reads, “Everyone may experience more serious health effects.” The index ranges from 0- 50 (good) to 301- 500 (hazardous). On Monday, Ashland’s was 245.

Just last week, SOU’s football team had to move their game to Sherwood High School in Sherwood, Ore. because of similar conditions. Other fall sports teams must now take the air quality into consideration. According to Athletic Director Matt Sayre, “practices can be conducted at the orange level, but once it gets into the red they have to be moved inside.” This presents challenges for outdoor sports like football, soccer and cross country.

“We’ve been going on now almost two weeks with the different smoke and modifying practices. We’re trying a lot of things, trying to keep our players safe and trying to get the kind of work we need to prepare for a season,” said SOU’s head football coach Charlie Hall. Football practices are being conducted mostly in the mornings when the air quality is better and safer for the athletes.

“Practices are easier to control and limit the amount exposure and the things they do that might put the student athletes at risk,” said the athletic director. “Games are different. You have to take that into account as well the fact that people come out to watch and these athletes are playing for up to four hours when you throw in all the pregame warm ups. You don’t want to expose the student athletes and the people in the stands to that.” “This is becoming a reality for us, so we’re dealing with this on a regular basis,” continued Sayre. “We have policies to guide us through situations like this when the air is in the red.”

With Southern Oregon University’s national champion cross-country team back in town for practice this week, the air is a concern for both coaches and athletes. “For other sports, running is just one compote,” said Head Coach Grier Gatlin. “For us, running is our sport. We don’t have plays, we just run.” Although the entire team does not report to town until Friday, Gatlin is having to consider modifications. “If we have to go without running for an extended length of time that will impact the ability to perform at the level we’re used to,” Gatlin said. According to the coach, there is no substitute for running: “If you can’t run, it’s impossible to replicate.” Anytime Fitness is providing the runners in town with passes until the end of the week.

The Head Athletic Trainer, Kristine Johnson, said that her department is evaluating the situation on a day-by-day basis. While her department has not gotten any complaints from the athletes, some of the effects she has seen include difficulty breathing, watery eyes, and sinus problems.

The trainers monitor athletes with asthma and respiratory problems most closely as they are the ones most negatively impacted. “We’re trying to keep athletes as safe as possible and get ready for the competitions they have to do,” she said.  “We’re looking for trends in the air quality,” Johnson continued. “Right now it’s trending to terrible.”

According to an email from Ashland’s Interim Fire Chief David Shepherd, the fires contributing to the poor air quality include the Naylor Fire which started August 29. It is estimated at 400 acres and 5 percent containment has been achieved. Meanwhile, the Chetco Bar fire continues to grow, and the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge exploded in size Monday night. “Ashland Fire & Rescue has sent an engine as part of a Rogue Valley Wildland Strike Team to assist with efforts on that fire” said the fire chief. “Our units will most likely be deployed near the town of Cascade Locks to help protect the residents of that community.”

“Unfortunately, we still have a lot of hot and dry weather ahead of us,” continued Shepherd. “As we continue to work on existing fires these new fires (such as the Eagle Creek fire) continue to stretch our resources making it difficult to focus on any one fire at a time.” He estimates that the fires will move towards containment in October. “Most of the larger fires will continue to burn until we start to see a significant change in our weather conditions,” said the Fire Chief. “We need mother nature to provide us with cooler temperatures, elevated humidity levels and precipitation.”

With an AQI as high 245, it is recommended that people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should avoid all physical activity outdoors, and everyone else should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion.

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