By BILL POEHLER, Salem Statesman Journal
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Survivors of the 2020 Labor Day wildfires in Santiam Canyon cities reported breathing problems, health problems and struggles to find housing still impacted them a year after the fires, according to an Oregon State University community health study.
Of the more than 100 residents of cities including Detroit, Gates, Lyons, Mill City and Idanha who participated in the survey from October to November, 55% reported having some or a lot of difficulty breathing, compared with 27% who reported they had breathing problems before the fires.
Respondents to the survey reported they were still changing air filters in their houses every two weeks and that both they and their animals continue to experience health issues due to contamination from the fires, the Statesman Journal reported.
Oregon State Professor Marc Braverman, one of the authors of the study, said the burning of buildings, machinery and other materials typically releases potentially toxic chemicals in the air.
“In addition, the fire’s destruction of trees and removal of forest cover, and its effects on soil in the region, can create atypically high levels of dust that might still be at elevated levels in the air, depending on wind patterns, which might still be affecting residents,” Braverman said.
The assessment looked at the ongoing physical and mental health of survivors in the Santiam Canyon, including environmental health, housing and access to healthy food.
The study, which was funded through a grant from Marion County, also found that 13% of those who lost homes in the wildfires had returned to the area.
And as of Nov. 15, 42% of them (301 of 694) had been issued building permits and 53% had been issued septic permits.
The inability of wildfire survivors to find housing has caused problems like trauma, depression, chronic stress and anxiety. It also has brought on other problems for survivors by impacting physical health through their diet, inability to exercise, reduced access to medical care and increased exposure to the weather.
“There’s a ton of residents who are still experiencing these problems and are displaced,” Braverman said. “The housing problems is kind of at the root of a lot of the various health problems, especially mental health, stress and anxiety.”
The study found many displaced people are living in places like Portland and Salem, but still consider themselves Santiam Canyon residents.
One of the recommendations, according to the study, is for governments to make it easier for residents to rebuild their homes, such as streamlining the process for getting permits.
“As far as the county is concerned, that health assessment confirmed what we knew, that we needed housing,” Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said. “It’s just confirmed that we’ve got work to do and we’re continuing to do that.”
The recommendations made in the study include addressing the shortage of mental health providers in the area, increasing the attention paid to food insecurity, supporting survivors’ efforts to rebuild, establishing a health registry, evaluating dust mitigation needs and sampling ash and dust for toxic chemicals.
Water quality also was a major concern.
Detroit’s water filtration was destroyed in the fires, and it took seven months for a temporary one to be put in place and water to begin flowing to the city again. The city also has had to replace contaminated lines.
Some residents reported distrust in the quality of water, in part due to compounds like methyl tert-butyl ether found in the water. The levels found are considered safe in Oregon.
“There was a fair amount of distrust,” Braverman said. “People just didn’t believe the reports or whatever agencies are doing the measuring. This isn’t true of everybody, but many people just didn’t trust what they were hearing in terms of like what’s safe.”
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