Despite wildfire smoke that caused "very unhealthy" pollution levels in Jackson County Thursday and "hazardous" levels Wednesday, officials from the ASA Western National Softball Tournament still said "Play ball."
The tournament, which brought 57 teams from across the West Coast to U.S. Cellular Community Park this week, was going strong yesterday in the midst of the smoke-filled air. Tournament officials said they didn't take the health advisories lightly, limiting games to an hour and encouraging coaches to practice indoors as much as possible.
"If conditions continue to deteriorate, canceling the tournament is within the realm of possibility," tournament director Rich Rosenthal said Thursday.
The tournament is scheduled to run through Sunday. Medford also is currently hosting the eight-team AAA American Legion state baseball tournament for high school-aged players.
The smoke is pouring into Jackson County from numerous lightning-sparked fires burning in Josephine and Douglas counties. The blazes have scorched nearly 40,000 acres of wildland and forced hundreds of evacuations while spewing smoke across the region. Conditions peaked with a "hazardous" reading on the air quality index in Medford Wednesday because of fine particles in the air, but later dropped back down to a "very unhealthy" level Thursday morning. DEQ officials expect it to stay this way through next week.
Of the 57 youth softball teams playing in Medford, 54 are from outside the Rogue Valley, Rosenthal said, which makes the decision of whether to cancel the tournament more problematic.
"It's tricky. It's a very delicate issue. It's a little different animal than the (city's) recreational programs," Rosenthal said, referring to cancellations of the city's Junior Giants baseball and T-ball games because of the smoke. "There are many more considerations going into this."
Dr. Jim Shames, medical director for Jackson County Health and Human Services, said the smoky conditions were reason for concern for the teams.
"If I'm a coach or parent, and I'm standing at a ball field and can't see a couple miles ... then children shouldn't be out doing strenuous activity," Shames said. "It's not our call whether they cancel the tournament, it's our job to make sure they have the information that will help them make the call."
Shames said children, the elderly and people who have asthma or heart conditions are most likely to be affected by air pollutants.
Officials from Providence Medford Medical Center and Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center have reported a moderate increase in the number of people with ailments related to the smoke, but nothing serious yet. That could change, depending on how long the smoke sticks around.
"More than likely, the long-term effects of the smoke will cause an increase in physician visits and (emergency room) visits down the road as this hangs in the air," said Providence spokeswoman Kelly Carper Polden.
There's little likelihood that the softball players will get much of a break before the tournament ends Sunday.
"It sounds like we're going to have smoke for the foreseeable future," said Byron Peterson, DEQ natural resource specialist.
National Weather Service officials confirmed his outlook, saying brief reprieves will come and go, but that the smoky layers will hang around through at least the middle of next week.
"There's times when it gets a little better," said meteorologist Chuck Glaser. "Like (Wednesday) evening, it went up for a while. Better, but not great. But it came back down."
Parents and coaches interviewed Thursday said they felt that limiting the game times instead of canceling the tournament was the right call.
"You know, it is what it is," said Charley Hawkins, coach for the California Grapettes out of Redding, Calif. "It's tough, but we're here. Life throws you curveballs."
Hawkins has been limiting the amount of time his team spends outside and having them rest as much as possible.
Still, it's been tough. Grapette parent Bobbi Wellman said the smoke has taken a toll on the players, with symptoms such as sore throats and watering eyes. A few asthmatics on the team have had to be especially careful.
"It's been rough," Wellman said, adding some teams opted to play with masks, while many players practiced drills in their hotel rooms.
Julie McNamara, a parent from the San Jose Sting team, said the smoke is presenting a different challenge than other obstacles the team has faced.
"It sort of zaps their energy," McNamara said. "The smoke is hard, but they're making adjustments. These kids are competitive players, so they want to play."
Sting center fielder Alex Schwenger, 12, said she noticed the smoke, but it hasn't been bad enough to divert her focus.
"If it bothers me, I'll still fight through," she said. "I really want to win."
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or email@example.com.