Truck drivers navigate the world’s worst air quality

  • A thick curtain of smoke hangs over Oregon, causing health and delivery problems for drivers.
  • The air quality is literally off the charts in some areas.

Tom O’Brien, a hotshot CDL driver for southern Oregon freight and farming business EB Farms, has spent the past few days avoiding fire after fire. 

Over the past several weeks, dozens of conflagrations have prompted highway closures around the state. As of Tuesday afternoon, one fire had been 100% contained, but others have continued to grow.

O’Brien, who delivers lumber, tractors and other equipment along the Interstate 5 corridor, said the closures have cost him hours in delays, as fires in California and Washington as well as Oregon force him to take alternate routes.

But one of the worst problems he faces is the thick layer of smoke that hangs over most of the state, where many businesses have shut down to protect the health and safety of their workers.

Shippers close their doors

On Monday, O’Brien delivered a load in Eugene, Oregon, where smoke from the Holiday Farm fire continues to choke the metropolitan area.

The business was closed, “but I did get lucky and called a few contractors who were nice enough to come unload me,” said O’Brien, who spoke to FreightWaves from Portland, where the air quality conditions now rank the worst among the world’s major metropolitan areas.

“It’s horrible,” he said, calling attention to his gravelly voice and sore throat.

Working outside, a risk

With the wildfires causing an unprecedented air quality crisis around the state, health experts are  advising people to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. 

Many truck drivers don’t have that luxury.

Luke Williams is president of Central Oregon Trucking Co. (COTC), a Daseke company based in Redmond, Oregon.

The carrier’s flatbed drivers have no choice but to work outside, tarping and strapping their loads, putting them at risk from the polluted air.

“It’s a little different than someone just picking up [a load],” Williams told FreightWaves. “Our drivers are actually out there working.”

Off the charts

The Air Quality Index, the EPA’s index for reporting air quality,  goes from zero to 500. Anything over 300 is considered “actively hazardous.”

As of Tuesday, Redmond’s air quality was rated 318. Portland’s was rated 422. Mill City, one of the towns decimated by the Beachie Creek Fire near Salem, had an index of 624. 

At these levels, even healthy people can experience health impacts, including irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Those with heart and lung disease or other health issues could face life-threatening conditions.

To protect drivers, COTC is trying to get no tarp loads, said Williams. So its trucks don’t get stranded, the company also is trying to avoid high smoke areas “with our inbound capacity.”

Echoing those sentiments, Melanie Santinelli, a dispatcher for Bridgetown Trucking in Portland, said the company is calling the customers before sending drivers places that have the dirtiest air.

“We’re verifying that they are actually open with their hours, so our drivers don’t get stuck.”

In addition to dispatching drivers, Santinelli has spent the past five days driving directly into areas ravaged by fire, evacuating livestock left behind by owners who had to flee. “We have a horse trailer, dog kennel, cat carriers, and take every kind of animal,” she said.

Worse than COVID-19

The fires and smoke are worse than COVID-19 and will have a longer-lasting impact on his business and community, Williams believes.

To date, the wildfires have burned 1 million acres and claimed at least eight victims. Entire towns have been decimated, and thousands of Oregonians have been forced to evacuate. Major roads connecting central Oregon to other parts of the state will be closed indefinitely, and mills and other businesses serviced by COTC have burned.

Trucking has been deemed an essential industry, so COTC was able to keep loads going even at the height of the pandemic, Williams said. 

“This is closer to home,” he said.

It can happen here

Jaime O’Brien is the operations manager for FreightLogistics Inc., a brokerage in Medford, a town in southern Oregon that was under an evacuation order last week as wildfires razed subdivisions.

O’Brien has lived in the area for close to 25 years, and for several years, fires have become a way of life. 

But before that, fires never occurred in southern Oregon, she said.

“We always had blue skies. We never had a fire season at the end of the summer. We had fires in the forest, not the city. It has an economic impact on every business.

“It’s quite amazing to have been here this long, to know this is a new development and that it never used to happen.”