Okanogan is an under-resourced rural area located east of the Cascades Mountains in North Central Washington. Okanogan County is dominated by agricultural land, extensive national and state forestland, and small towns. The largest town, Winthrop, anchors a year-round tourist economy centered on outdoor recreation in the county's Methow Valley. Okanogan County residents are largely lower-income and face a high cost of living that requires many year-round residents and seasonal agricultural workers to live in substandard housing. Fifty percent of residents earn less than $50K/year. An additional 25% of residents earn under $25K/year and 29% of children live below the poverty line.
Environmental challenges in Okanogan County that disproportionately impact low-wage workers and families include year-round poor air quality, predominantly from smoke, including wildfires, prescribed fire, outdoor burning, and woodsmoke. Wildfire frequency, intensity, and duration are all on the rise due to climate change. In 2018, Okanogan County residents experienced 21 consecutive days of unhealthy to hazardous air quality and 40 days of visual horizon loss. In 2020, the county's Cold Springs fire alone burned 200,000 acres and resulted in 14 days of unhealthy to hazardous air quality from smoke. Wildfires in Okanogan County pose air quality-related health risks from PM2.5 and other pollutants, and threaten homes, agricultural lands, and tourism-based employment.
Community members in North Central Washington’s Okanogan County share their stories of coping with and adapting to summer’s wildfire smoke season in a new public art installation called The Fifth Season, which was unveiled at the Winthrop Public Library in 2022. Click the link to hear each participant's audio story and read more about them.
The Fifth Season project is a collaboration between Clean Air Methow and the UW EDGE Center's Community Engagement Core.