Wildfire smoke has become a pervasive form of air pollution released from intensifying fires due to the warming effects of heat-trapping pollution and a litany of other environmental changes.

Southwestern Oregon experienced unhealthy air from wildfire smoke nearly 13 days each year on average from 2013 through the end of 2022 — up from one to two days on average from 1985 through 2012, according to a report by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality that used data from the town of Medford, about 10 miles northwest of Talent where Indigo Creek Outfitters is based.

Smoke pollution exacerbates asthma, worsens infections and contributes to a variety of other physical maladies. Tiny smoke particles move from lungs into bloodstreams and can directly affect brain health, with research out of the University of Montana connecting smoke exposure to the development of dementia.

Its noxious effects on mental health, particularly on rural communities, tend to receive less discussion.

Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is at the heart of a region synonymous with white water rafting, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities in the Klamath Mountains and Cascade Range. Vineyards and pear orchards dot the valley, and in the mid-size town of Ashland at the valley’s south end, the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival boasts international recognition.

All these activities hinge on good summer weather, and during the past decade, they’ve been disrupted by wildfire smoke, directly affecting wages, profits and reducing overall quality of life.

“In rural areas there’s likely more people whose livelihoods are based on the land and working outside,” said Colleen Reid, a health geographer and environmental epidemiologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who studies the health effects of wildfire smoke.

In the valley, wildfire smoke settles more easily and often sticks around longer than it does in the surrounding mountains and plains. Atmospheric conditions often arise in valleys that keep smoke close to the ground, where its effect is the strongest. This can trigger more than physical ailments like asthma.

“We’re increasingly seeing mental health impacts,” Reid said. While early research focused on the effects of flames from wildfires, she said “there are some more recent studies where even individuals who were just affected by the smoke could have mental health impacts.”

Read the full article about wildfire smoke and mental health by Claire Carlson, John Upton and Kaitlyn Trudeau at The Daily Yonder.