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Wildfire Smoke Causes Widespread Disruption To Fall Sports

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Athletic practices at Omak High School were moved indoors all this week due to very smoky air outdoors.

At high schools and universities across the Inland Northwest, student athletes have been forced to practice indoors due to dense wildfire smoke.

Omak High School Athletic Director Nick Popelier said outdoor practices must be called off when air quality turns unhealthy. The fall sports teams at his north central Washington school have yet to work out outside this month.

"Football, soccer, volleyball, cross country -- all of them are running now,” he said. “We’re just staggering our gym times to keep them indoors."

On Wednesday, football linemen drilled in stocking feet in the wrestling room while others did reps in the weight room before all donned helmets to practice in the gym when their team's slot opened. Omak senior Keith Matt is glad to escape the smoky air outside, but he said indoor practice is not the same.

"We're missing the game feeling,” he said. “It’s not really like the feeling of being outside on the field. But we're working with what we have."

"I think we're going to do alright,” Matt added. “We're going to get past this as a community and as a team."

In North Idaho, a whole bunch of football teams seized the option to move their season openers indoors to avoid wildfire smoke. The Kibbie Dome at the University of Idaho in Moscow will host seven hastily relocated high school games over the next three days.

"We're happy to have them," University of Idaho athletics spokeswoman Becky Paull said. "It's great that we have a place for them so they can play."

Some of the high school teams are relocating considerable distances to face off indoors such as the squads from Kellogg, Sandpoint, Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

The University of Idaho itself cancelled outdoor activities including athletic practices and intramural sports when wildfire smoke settled in. The Idaho Vandals open their football season next Thursday, September 3. A forecasted change in the Northwest weather pattern this weekend to cooler temperatures with showers may clear the air by then.

The disruptions to athletics due to poor air quality extended south to Oregon and beyond, all the way to Utah.

Eastern Oregon University athletic director Anji Weissenfluh in La Grande wrote in an email that the football team changed the time of practice or canceled practices. Men’s soccer moved indoors. The women’s soccer team canceled a scrimmage against UBC Okanogan. The cross-country squad lowered the intensity of its running workouts.

Near the Grizzly Bear Complex of wildfires spanning the Oregon-Washington border, the Wallowa School District shortened practice times and provided more breaks and water.

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Ashley Stewart contributed to this report.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.