Some of the dirtiest air in Oregon surrounds this mountain hamlet every winter when woodstoves chuff smoke into the Cascade Range. And each winter, the town comes perilously close...

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OAKRIDGE, Ore. — Some of the dirtiest air in Oregon surrounds this mountain hamlet every winter when woodstoves chuff smoke into the Cascade Range.

And each winter, the town comes perilously close to violating the federal Clean Air Act.

For more than a decade, air-pollution regulators have tried to help Oakridge with air testing, technical advice and a system of warnings when the air is at its worst. This month, they installed a $20,000 computer system that calls each Oakridge resident with news on unhealthy air days.

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But as residents this winter fire up their stoves, a question has emerged:

Is the old logging community of 1,100 households willing to enforce its own clean-air law?

In 2003, the City Council passed an ordinance instituting a mandatory ban on burning when the air-particulate level becomes heavy. The ordinance also asks people to voluntarily cut back on burning when the pollution is headed toward a severe level.

The city has not had to issue a mandatory ban because since the ordinance’s passage, there haven’t been any periods in which the pollution was that bad. Mayor Sue Bond says the ordinance is unnecessary because the smoke is not a serious problem.

But so far this year, air-quality regulators have asked residents 23 times to voluntarily cut their woodstove use.

Some residents do worry about the air, former Oakridge Mayor Don Hampton said.

“But then there’s also a certain segment of the population [who say], ‘The government can’t tell me what to do,’ ” Hampton said.

This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a map showing counties with the worst air in the nation.

Lane County ranked with Los Angeles, Chicago and counties in the “rust belt” of Ohio. On the map, Lane County appeared as a black spot in the nearly pristine Pacific Northwest.

Oakridge’s air problems result from two factors: the woodstove smoke and the geography of the 2-square-mile town in a narrow, constricted valley at 1,209-feet elevation.

To encourage cutbacks in woodstove use, air-quality regulators last spring won a $20,000 EPA grant for the automated telephone system to call all households in Oakridge when pollution levels rise.

Instead of the call system, City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman says the agency might have done better by buying clean-burning pellet stoves for low-income residents.