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Ash from Eagle Creek Fire adds to poor air quality in Portland: Is it OK to ride?

Posted by on September 5th, 2017 at 8:03 am

cycling bad air.jpg

A woman wears a mask while cycling on North Vancouver Avenue this morning.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“Rode today with a mask, but some eye protection is needed. My eyes started to itch after a while.”
— Alex Fallenstedt via Twitter

Larch Mountain, Crown Point, Cascade Locks — to people who love to ride bicycles, these places are more than cherished icons of Oregon’s beauty. They are ride destinations and inspirations.

The Eagle Creek Fire that’s still burning out of control in the Columbia River Gorge is having an emotional impact on many of us. People who live and work in the Gorge are struggling right now. And for those of us with emotional bonds to those places forged by hours in the saddle we can only watch in horror as the damage spreads. Even if we could put it out of our minds, the ash falling in Portland makes it impossible to ignore.

That ash has mixed with bad air quality (at hazardous levels last I checked) has many of you wondering if it’s safe to bike in the city. The answer is yes, but…

… here’s some common sense advice:

– Try to find an alternative to biking: Take the MAX or the bus.

– If you choose to bike, go slow and don’t exert yourself.

– Try to limit the quantity and distance of your bike trips until the air quality improves.

– Consider wearing a mask and/or glasses/ski goggles to shield yourself from particulate matter.

Reader Alex Fallenstedt shared via Twitter this morning that he rode to work with a mask and wished he’d also worn eye protection. “My eyes started to itch after a while,” he said.

Others have noticed a decrease in the usual bicycle traffic around Portland today. Kiel Johnson, proprietor of the Go By Bike shop and bike valet service under the Aerial Tram said he’s parked about 100 fewer bikes than normal today. “Everyone is very concerned about the ash,” he shared.

How are you feeling about the fire in the Gorge?

Do you have tips or insights on riding in these conditions? Please share what you know.

UPDATE: The fire will likely cause immense damage to the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail that was so tantalizingly close to completion. Here are images from Twitter showing the Oneonta tunnel engulfed in flames.

I’ve reached out to to sources with the Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway and the Oregon Department of Transportation and will share an update on the impacts to the State Trail as soon as possible.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

60 Comments
  • nuovorecord September 5, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Just as an observation, I saw exactly zero people on bicycles this morning, when usually there are dozens on my commute. :-/

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    • SilkySlim September 5, 2017 at 8:25 am

      I noticed a downtick in bike traffic as well, but not quite down to the level you are describing. What I more so noticed is the uptick in car traffic, a triple threat combo of school being back in session, post Labor day, and of course these fires.

      My ride was short this morning, but it definitely was bothering by eyes more so than my lungs.

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    • John Lascurettes September 5, 2017 at 9:32 am

      I got a burn injury that has kept me from riding several weeks. I was finally planning on riding again this week, but decided to put that on continued hold with all the particulates in the air. I’m really jonesing to get back to pedaling.

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  • Steve Scarich September 5, 2017 at 8:18 am

    Anecdotal report. Back in the 80’s I administered amateur bicycle racing in Oregon. There was a big stage race in Ashland, that riders traveled from the Northwest and beyond to compete in. There was a major forest fire in the Ashland area, with visibility down to just a few miles. I was considering cancelling the event, due to health concerns. I discussed it at length with the physician on the staff of the UCSF, the national governing body. His feeling was that, although the riders would probably experience some discomfort and coughing, there was no long or medium term health risk to participating in a multi-day stage race.

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    • Bill September 5, 2017 at 10:06 am

      The Oregon Health Authority has a good factsheet on physical activity that’s geared towards students but also largely applies to adults: https://apps.state.or.us/Forms/Served/le8815h.pdf

      It really depends on the intensity of the particulate matter (PM) in the air, and if you have a condition (such as Asthma and other lung or heart issues) that would be exacerbated by the smoke. DEQ’s air quality monitors update hourly and you can see what the level of particulate matter is in your area: http://www.deq.state.or.us/aqi/ Right now it ranges from unhealthy in Gresham to moderate out in Beaverton.

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    • JRB September 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm

      Understanding of the risks posed by particulate matter has advanced considerably since the 80s and led to EPA’s decision in the 90s to tighten emission standards for particulates. MAX is a viable alternative for me so I will not be riding until air quality improves. For those who must ride, I strongly suggest investing in a mask, particularly one that can screen out particulates 2.5 microns and larger.

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    • Steve Scarich September 5, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      I just got in from a hard 40-mile workout in Bend, where authorities are telling us to stay inside. Our air is worse than that in the picture heading this story. I feel no ill effects, other than slight burning of the eyes.

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  • Bill Tedford September 5, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Tons of ash blew in my eyes when I rode my one-mile commute into downtown this morning. Wear your sunglasses, or goggles, people. Thinking of buying a mask at lunch if this continues.

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  • Kyle Banerjee September 5, 2017 at 8:33 am

    The question is not so much one of how bad the air is, but how long it’s going to be that way and how sensitive your body is to the specific pollutants. You can ride in amazingly bad air at high levels of effort for hours on end — but only if you can recover which can take awhile (i.e. weeks). If the smoke goes away relatively quickly, you can do things that are stupid to impossible if it’s around for a long time.

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    • Steve Scarich September 5, 2017 at 5:43 pm

      I wish there was some way to subjectively judge if it is/was a bad idea to ride, like coughing, or black stuff in your spit, or whatever, because, from what I have read, it is the ‘large’ particulate that is bad. So, if you can see big pieces of ash falling, then probably not a good idea to ride, but if it is just hazy, with 3 mile visibility, then maybe OK??

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      • Matt M September 6, 2017 at 8:04 am

        Other way around. Your lungs are pretty good at filtering out the big stuff (10 microns or larger). It’s the smaller stuff that gets through them and into the bloodstream. The small stuff will be present whether your can see the ash or not. I would advise against prolonged activity.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu September 5, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Skipped my 13 mile bike commute to Vancouver this morning, took bus to downtown instead. Nasty, acrid, unpleasant air.

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  • Stephen Keller September 5, 2017 at 9:10 am

    Odd. I saw more cyclists this morning than I usually do (three compared to the usual one). I was riding a half-hour earlier (5:50-7:00 a.m. instead of 6:00-7:30 a.m.), so that might account for the difference. Ash and smoke were more noticeable in St. Johns and Hillsboro. Up at Skyline things were clearer. Maybe a little altitude helps with this. I didn’t wear a mask but did wear eye-protection (always do; bugs hurt!). By the end of my 16 miles I was beginning to notice some irritation in my eyes, but not unbearable. I did not experience respiratory difficulties other than the normal ones associated with hauling my 220 pounds up Saltzman Road.

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    • rick September 5, 2017 at 10:25 am

      I saw many people riding bikes on Skyline and Germantown road yesterday.

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  • ps September 5, 2017 at 9:15 am

    I think it is fine to feel nostalgic about the areas that have burned and are still actively burning. Certainly don’t want folks to lose homes or businesses. The issue though, is that it is this concept of not wanting to lose something to a fire that contributed to the 150 years of fire suppression that now is culminating in fires that burn too hot and too fast to realistically manage. I rode Larch on Sunday, and it is evident the forests are overgrown and there is so much dead fall fuel. In a healthy forest, that dead fall burns more regularly and cooler and doesn’t kill the larger trees. If it wasn’t idiots with fireworks, it would have been lightning that started something like this. Look on the bright side, just like in the Mt. Jefferson wilderness, there ought to be some great views opened up by the fires.

    As for riding in it, ride. There will be 7 months of moist air right around the corner to heal your lungs and eyes.

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    • dwk September 5, 2017 at 6:55 pm

      Fire suppression has nothing to do with the Gorge. A rain forest with no real fire history until recently in the western end of the gorge.
      Please stop publishing BS.
      There are hundreds of people who may lose their homes.

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      • Jim Labbe
        Jim Labbe September 5, 2017 at 10:57 pm

        I’d be surprised if we didn’t avoided the folly of fire suppression in the Columbia River Gorge. But regardless the fire-return interval for much of the Mt. Hood National Forest is in the range of 200 years. I feel sad about the loss of the landscape of my youth and young adulthood, but there will be beauty in the renewal after the fire.

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      • ps September 6, 2017 at 12:39 pm

        Okeedokee, but if suppression isn’t an issue then this is just mother nature doing her thing, which would mean there is a history of fires in the gorge or all the trees would be thousands of years old. It would also mean that either the people who tucked their homes in with all the trees either thought there wouldn’t be fires (sounds likely given your comment, and not remotely smart) or they thought people would come put the fires out before they became a problem (making suppression most certainly an impact). Either way, forests burn, regularly, whether that is on your time frame or not.

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    • dwk September 5, 2017 at 6:56 pm

      Great views opened up by people who live there losing everything…

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  • rick September 5, 2017 at 9:32 am

    I’m planning to buy a $30 filter mask. I used one years ago in flood relief when working around mold. It works better than an N95 mask. Fireworks should be banned.

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  • Mike Gilliland
    Mike Gilliland September 5, 2017 at 9:35 am

    First my thoughts are to all those more seriously affected, than only inconvenienced.

    I work at home, so my riding solely involves fitness riding at pace. Often interspersed with sprints and intervals, so I just can suck all that stuff up in my lungs.

    Probably back to my garage on the rollers until this blows over.

    And then I can continue my reward beer.

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  • Eric Leifsdad September 5, 2017 at 9:42 am

    https://www.thatsmags.com/china/post/20209/ofo-to-roll-out-smog-filtering-bikes-by-end-of-year

    I’m wondering if we can get in on a beta test program for that and/or some way to attach a filter to the front of the electric cargo bike. Respirators don’t fit kid’s faces well, but they also get hot and itchy even while using the motor more to avoid breathing hard. At what point do we need enclosed, air-conditioned bakfiets just to maintain air quality for the kids?

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    • rick September 5, 2017 at 10:28 am

      A Half-Face Respirator works well. It blocked a lot of mold and asbestos when I worked for many weeks in flooded towns several years ago.

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  • Al September 5, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Was out on Marine Drive yesterday evening and breathing wasn’t so much of a problem as the ash in my eyes. I ride with glasses on. Ash got in my eyes anyway.

    I put the bicycle away for the morning commute and decided to moto in this morning. Had to ride with the visor down due to the ash. Passed one cyclist with a hospital style face mask on.

    Having experience with respirators as a function of prior jobs, I can attest to the fact that if you are trying to keep smoke out of your lungs, then a simple face mask is not going to be up to the task. You might as well not be wearing anything at all. Riding with a properly fit respirator will be extremely challenging. For your safety, please don’t do this.

    Unfortunately, I recommend alternative forms of transportation under such conditions.

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  • Mike Sanders September 5, 2017 at 10:32 am

    For those who don’t know, the fire jumped over the river overnight. Larch Mountain being evacuated, evacuated folks being transported to Mt. Hood CC in Gresham. I-84 and the old highway closed. Stevenson, WA being evacuated. Wind’s blowing the smoke toward metropolitan area, ash fall reported as far west as Washington Square. KPTV website and Facebook page have jaw dropping photo taken at north end of Bridge of the Gods last night. Smoke will get worse as day goes on.

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  • Eric Leifsdad September 5, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Stay well-hydrated and breathe through your nose. Both are easy to forget if you’re wearing a respirator (which should be NIOSH rated.)

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  • Kevin Geraghty September 5, 2017 at 10:48 am

    ps
    I think it is fine to feel nostalgic about the areas that have burned and are still actively burning. Certainly don’t want folks to lose homes or businesses. The issue though, is that it is this concept of not wanting to lose something to a fire that contributed to the 150 years of fire suppression that now is culminating in fires that burn too hot and too fast to realistically manage. I rode Larch on Sunday, and it is evident the forests are overgrown and there is so much dead fall fuel. In a healthy forest, that dead fall burns more regularly and cooler and doesn’t kill the larger trees. If it wasn’t idiots with fireworks, it would have been lightning that started something like this. Look on the bright side, just like in the Mt. Jefferson wilderness, there ought to be some great views opened up by the fires.

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    No. The west slope of Larch does not feature “overgrown” forest. It is fairly wet forest, and natural fire regimes for that sort of forest are relatively infrequent and relatively severe. Wet forests have lots of biomass. Another name for biomass is “fuel”. Doesn’t mean that such a fire won’t be patchy or burn moderately over parts of its impact area, though.

    In pre-European settlement times there were very extensive high-severity fires in wet forests. Virtually all of the wet Bull Run watershed burned in one go maybe 300 years ago. It’s weather driven. In severe fire weather you can have monster fires in “wet” forests.

    *However*:

    1) the prevailing policy of fire suppression means that moderate fires, or fires which burn in moderate fire weather, are put out. The nearly uncontrollable fires which burn in severe conditions (like the present) take on a disproportionate role, because they are the only fire class which cannot be put out easily.

    2) the low and mid-elevation gorge escarpment forests, where the current fire is burning, are different from Larch mtn. Although most of the Oregon side has never been logged, in many areas it is hard to find trees older than, say 90 years, because there didn’t use to be many trees there. Typically in such areas the old trees are scattered fire-resistant douglas fir. A lot of it was probably more like savannah or altogether treeless. The gorge is a wind-tunnel and there were a *lot* of fires there in pre-European settlement times. Bottoms of shady ravine-valleys like e.g. Eagle Creek or Wahkeena creek, or the plateau forests, were moister, burned less frequently and likely always had well-stocked forests.

    This “dense overgrown forest” schtick is really only an appropriate interpretation for drier forests which used to burn much more frequently–east-side ponderosa or the now virtually extinct Willamette valley oak savannas, or selected parts of the gorge escarpment. Otherwise it’s just talking points put out by people who think all forests should be logged more.

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    • Alan 1.0 September 5, 2017 at 11:15 am

      I’m glad you pointed that out, I’d been thinking the same things. The Columbia Gorge in particular has distinct fire events. The big Yacolt Burn of 1902, and similar burns in 1929 and 1952, are historic examples, and pre-USA burns occurred repeatedly throughout the western and mid-gorge areas. The Silver Star area of Clark/Skamania counties has retarded soil development due to the heat and frequency of those fires, and tree growth is notably slower on those soils. Other enviro conditions related to the gorge and its catabatic winds affect that, too. Apart from the fools who started this one, it is behaving just about like similar fires have for millenia. It has even jumped the river, now.

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  • Kate September 5, 2017 at 10:49 am

    I rode in early, saw a few others with bandannas over their mouths. I just wore my regular eye-glasses.
    A note- PIR Trophy Cup series has been cancelled for tonight. I was monitoring their page pretty closely and weighing whether to chance it. Glad they made the call for me.

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  • B. Carfree September 5, 2017 at 10:49 am

    While I always hated it when friends from SoCal would shut down my whining about the growing air pollution problems in the Sacramento Valley back in the ’80s by saying it wasn’t as bad as L.A., I’m going to do the same thing here. Our AQI in Eugene has been around 300 for days. Our PM 2.5 is over 400 ug/m^3 (one will notice anything over 15). We’re literally being held hostage in our homes with filters going 24/7. Okay, I went out to my grand-daughter’s birthday party, but I had to wear a respirator. (It would have made a funny photo when my wife and I rode past a group of smokers.)

    Oregon needs to face up to the consequences of climate change. We now have longer, drier summers and warmer winters. Those winters provide more fuel and the summers make it more likely to burn. We’ve got to stop doing the “keep the structures safe and let the rest burn until the rains come”. The Chetco Bar fire, now at over 250 square miles, was discovered July 12 at one-quarter acre and the decision was made to let it burn rather than put it out.

    We lose much more than the value of the timber by letting these fires rage. Just consider that particulates cause brain damage to children similar to what is caused by eating lead paint chips. We’re making a generation of idiots!

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    • BradWagon September 5, 2017 at 12:06 pm

      The lifecycle of a healthy forest actually includes wildfires. Stopping them is just one more way humans impact the environment for the worse. An unless we develop some other method for clearing forests the amount of fuel for fires that eventually WILL happen only grows each year. Societies perception of wildfires is but another example of how the comfort of the human species is being highly subsidized by the environment.

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    • rick September 5, 2017 at 8:15 pm

      The real issue is of banning fireworks.

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  • Jon September 5, 2017 at 10:57 am

    N95 masks and better (N99, N100) are effective in filtering the air pollution. N95 masks filter 95% of particles .3 micron and larger. Since PM2.5 refers to 2.5 micron particles these filters are good for the bad particles in the air from the fires. Make sure you fit them correctly so air does not leak around the edges. I would use them when I’m walking around the next few days.

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  • Brent Langland September 5, 2017 at 11:11 am

    I drove to work today. Both me and my wife didn’t think it was worth knocking a couple months off my life by breathing so much of that soot on my normal bike commute.

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  • Deepak Saxena September 5, 2017 at 11:20 am

    I have asthma so avoiding going outside all together.

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  • Doug September 5, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I caught a big piece of soot in my eye this morning. It was irritated and watered for 15 minutes. I scratched that cornea once. There’s grit in my teeth from the soot. I think I’ll give my lungs a break for a while. If it’s this bad in Longview what is like in Portland?

    I’m just sick about the devastation in the gorge. How could anyone who calls them self a hiker do this to Portland’s backyard. Teenager or not. I was a teenager once and I valued and loved nature, still do.

    “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Socrates said this in the forth century BC, so the idea that “kids these day” is nothing new, but honestly some peoples kids.

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  • Jason H September 5, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Lives and homes are the most important priority to protect, but with the completion of the Historic Columbia River Trail so tantalizingly close to being achieved the potential devastating loss of existing trail infrastructure is so devastatingly sad. Saw photos of the Oneonta tunnel fully engulfed and assumed lost. Assume most of the HCRH will be the same.

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    • Racer X September 5, 2017 at 12:52 pm

      Yes the loss of the tunnel is sad…the photos seem to show that only the tunnel is on fire on both ends but not the surrounding forest…does this look odd to anyone else, could this event have been opportunistic arson or man made? (I hope the authorities investigate such.)

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      • Alan 1.0 September 5, 2017 at 1:10 pm

        The top two photos are from the past, not current. The bottom right photo shows fire all around the tunnel, including both sides of the roadway. The rocks on the road suggest fire above it, too.

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  • axoplasm September 5, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Anecdata:

    I rode with my kids to school (5mi) at casual kid pace (6-8mph). We all got ash in our eyes but otherwise OK. No breathing problems. One kid and myself have mild asthma and allergies. I lifted weights at the gym which had its doors open & rode home at quick commute pace (15mph). Wood smoke is usually an asthma trigger for me but I feel OK today. We were looking forward to racing at Alpenrose tomorrow and probably will if it’s not cancelled.

    According to https://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.local_state&stateid=38 the AQI in the city regions is unhealthy to moderate.

    The sky and general murk remind me of the year we lived in China. Not a happy comparison! A “good” day in our town — regarded as one of China’s cleanest — was about AQI 200. And Chinese city governments are notorious for fudging those numbers. When I visited Beijing the city government refused to report anything other than “above 500” and the US embassy often reported it in the 1000s. Right now the AQI in Portland is 155.

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  • Todd Boulanger September 5, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I rode in today, as I realized that walking to the nearest frequent service bus stop (versus the one in front of my house with 60 minute headways) and then waiting for the next bus and walking to my destination would offer greater exposure than my downhill ride to work. [The ash fall was much less than last night when I rode home through the grey snow.]

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  • Todd Boulanger September 5, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    Additionally – another long term tragic aspect that this acute fire event should focus us on as a community of fresh air breathers…

    …is that our air quality agencies have way too few monitoring local stations (<10). I would like to suggest that Portlanders lobby the CoP to fund adding more automated monitoring points…especially along important regional bikeways.

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  • Todd Boulanger September 5, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Hey – should this not be a clean air action day…thus free transit?

    Has anyone called CoP or TRIMET?

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  • Dan A September 5, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    I rode in from about 5:15am to 6:15am, 15 miles, breathing through my nose. It wasn’t too bad, kind of looked like riding in light snowfall, but now I’m all stuffed up and I may end up with a sinus infection before it clears out. I’m getting a lift home.

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  • Sukho Goff September 5, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    So sad about this incredibly beautiful area being burned. We rode to Carson WA from PDX on Saturday and it was clear and beautiful. On Sunday we rode with a group and got high enough up in Gifford Pinchot that we could see the smoke start to really develop on the OR side. Tried to ride home yesterday but only made it to the Bridge of the Gods. Officials there told us they had just closed highway 30. My wife picked us up from there. I was happy not to have to breathe in the smoky air anymore..(or try to ride on 84 back to PDX!!)

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  • JRB September 5, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Please don’t put too much stock in the fact that your lungs don’t feel irritated. 2.5 microns is incredibly small. You can very well not feel it when you inhale small particulates, but they can nonetheless lodge in lung tissue and cause health problems. People don’t feel immediate adverse effects when they inhale asbestos fibers. If you must or insist on riding, please where a mask.

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    • B. Carfree September 5, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      These particles can even get through the lungs into the blood. One hypothesis, not yet disproven, for how particulates cause brain damage is that they get to the brain and cause inflammation. Like any exposure to a dangerous chemical, it’s no joke and bravado is in poor taste.

      By the way, when they changed the PSI (Pollution Standard Index) to the AQI (Air Quality Index), pretty much only PR changes were involved. In addition to the obvious substitution of quality for pollution, they took out the word unhealthy from “moderately unhealthy” so people wouldn’t be alarmed at what we are doing to this very important part of the commons.

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  • Pete S. September 5, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    I rode 45 miles this morning.

    Am I going to die?

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    • John Lascurettes September 5, 2017 at 2:25 pm

      Someday.

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    • BB September 5, 2017 at 2:43 pm

      Eventually, probably.

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    • Sigma September 5, 2017 at 4:34 pm

      See the comment directly above yours. You are young and invincible now, but when you get lung cancer at age 70, today might be part of the reason.

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    • rick September 5, 2017 at 8:20 pm

      try a $50 half-face respirator. Paint stores have them.

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  • rick September 5, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Some local paint stores have heavy-duty $50 mask that work far better than N95 masks. Coffee just doesn’t wake me up so I prefer bike rides.

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  • Mindful Cyclist September 5, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    When I saw the ash falling last night, I pretty much decided to take the bus this morning. The 12 mile commute home was going to be too much. I think I saw one cyclist from the west side of the Burnside bridge all the way to SE 12th. Hope some rain comes soon!

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  • Matt M September 6, 2017 at 8:05 am

    Other way around. Your lungs are pretty good at filtering out the big stuff (10 microns or larger). It’s the smaller stuff that gets through them and into the bloodstream. The small stuff will be present whether your can see the ash or not. I would advise against prolonged activity.

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  • philip porter September 6, 2017 at 10:27 am

    If you can smell it, it’s getting into your lungs.

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