Mazama football coach Vic Lease led his team to the title of the 4A Showcase earlier this year. (Leon Neuschwander/SBLive)
Mazama football coach Vic Lease led his team to the title of the 4A Showcase earlier this year. (Leon Neuschwander/SBLive)

Monday not only signaled the start of official practices for fall sports in Oregon, but it offered renewed hope for a return to normalcy in 2021-22.

For schools dealing with wildfire smoke, however, getting back to normal was put on hold. Football, soccer and cross country teams in some areas were forced inside as the air quality index rose above the 150 threshold, prohibiting outdoor activity.

Teams from schools near Klamath Falls flocked to Mike's Fieldhouse, a large indoor facility at the Steen Sports Park that has two indoor soccer arenas and an open area with artificial turf. It's not ideal, but it's the best they can do under the circumstances.

“There have been times when the visibility has been under a mile. It's pretty bad,” Klamath Union athletic director Scott Mason said. “The smoke's been pretty tough to deal with. Just another hurdle added on to a crazy last year. And who knows what this year's going to be?”

At La Pine, the AQI was well above 150, forcing teams to practice inside the school's two gyms.

“If it's not COVID, it's stinkin' smoke,” La Pine athletic director Aaron Flack said. “Day 1 and we're indoors. We're hoping the smoke starts to clear out, but it's just going to be one of those things we're going to have to deal with for the next few weeks, anyway. I'm hoping by the time we start competing we'll be out of this.”

Crater of Central Point had made arrangements for indoor practices at the Jackson County Expo on Monday, but caught a break when the wind changed direction and the AQI reading fell from more than 150 to under 100. All Crater teams were able to practice outside.

“I got no smoke for the opening day of fall sports,” Crater athletic director Dave Heard said. “It's supposed to be this way up until at least Wednesday, and I don't know after that.

“The winds are blowing out of the northwest, blowing the smoke southeast. If the cold front goes away and the inversion sets back in, my guess is the winds will get back to normal and we'll be sitting in it again.”

If the smoke returns this week, Heard has arranged for Crater's football and soccer teams to practice at the coast this weekend. The teams would stay in the North Bend gym and practice mostly at Marshfield from Friday through Sunday.

“We did it four years ago and the coaches loved it,” Heard said. “It ended up being like a mini-team camp. The kids loved it. It's cooler. It's not like 95 degrees.”

Lakeview teams were forced inside Monday due to smoke from the nearby Fox Complex Fire.

With the high school gym being used by firefighters, athletes had limited space to practice. The football and girls soccer teams worked out in an elementary school cafeteria/gym. The volleyball and boys soccer teams used a gym at the old middle school. The cross country team ran the hallways at the high school.

“We're trying to support some fire crews and the Red Cross and such,” Lakeview athletic director Christopher Rose said. “So we're trying to fit in where we can. We've got to support the community. Obviously, these are our families and our staff that are being affected by the fire. I'm just trying to balance it out. I think I have the schedule for this week set up.”

The Fox Complex Fire, which merged with the Patton Meadow Fire, has consumed 6,200 acres.

“As the crow flies, it's at least 10 miles away,” Rose said. “But we've got staff members, we've got a bus driver out there, and we've got students that have homes that have had to evacuate.”

Teams from Klamath Union, Mazama, Henley, Lost River, Bonanza and Chiloquin are taking advantage of the indoor space at Mike's Fieldhouse, Schools are stacked up in two-hour blocks at a cost of $90 per hour, according to Mazama athletic director and football coach Vic Lease.

“We hate being inside, but just to get a decent practice in, we'll do it,” Lease said. “For a guy like me who has 80 football players, it doesn't work very well. We just have to try to figure it out.”

Lease noted that last week's change in OSAA air-quality guidance will make more outdoor practices possible. Previously, when the AQI was in the 101-150 range, teams could not practice outside. Now, they are permitted to have 90-minute outdoor sessions if they maintain a “less than normal” level of activity and include rest periods.

“You can't have a strenuous practice, but at least you're outside,” Lease said. “It's a huge game-changer.”

Many schools in problem areas have gotten into the habit of checking the AQI on an hourly basis. If a current AQI reading isn't available, some have developed other ways to gauge air quality.

“From the top of our stadium to the front of Table Rock is 4.8 miles,” Heard said, referring to a nearby mountain. “If we can see it, we can practice. If not, we can't.”

In a similar way, Lease checks Hog's Back behind Mazama's football field.

“I look at the top of Hog's Back, and if I can't make out the trees and everything, I know it's too bad,” Lease said. “When I can start making out the trees, it's typically below 100.”

Cross country teams are in a unique situation in that they do not need facilities to train. If the AQI is too high, Crater's teams board a bus at 8:30 a.m. and go in search of an AQI below 150 within 100 miles.

“We head up toward Lake of the Woods, or we go north on I-5 until we get clear,” Heard said. “Once we're clear, they get out and go find a BLM road to run on. We really want them to practice, especially after all the things they went through last year. If we can't get anywhere we want to get in less than an hour, generally we won't go.”

Flack said he has considered having La Pine teams travel to other areas for practice, but logistically it is difficult. It also could require a long trip, although the cross country team might be able to escape the smoke simply by going up in elevation.

“They probably will start looking at some places where they can get some fresh air and get some training in,” Flack said. “That's a thought, going up to like Paulina Lake, to get above it. The inversion right now is hanging so low, you can actually look at the blue sky up above the smoke.”