Communities in one of Washington’s most wildfire-prone regions share hard-earned wisdom about communicating the risks of wildfire smoke in a new report from a team of UW researchers, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Okanogan River Airshed Partnership (ORAP).
In Washington’s Okanogan River Valley, wildfires and the poor air quality they produce are a yearly challenge that is only growing with climate change. As a result, both tribal and nontribal communities in the area have extensive knowledge about preventing wildfire, communicating health risks and building resilience.
The report distills their expertise based on a series of interviews with key informants and focus groups with community members in the region.
Central to their findings is that local sources of information, including local agencies, news media and community groups, are some of the most effective and trusted ambassadors of health information about wildfires for the public.
“We know that people within communities are going to be the best messengers, however they’re often the ones who are getting resourced the least,” said Leah Wood, a recent MPH and MPA graduate of the UW Department of Global Health and UW Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, respectively. “We want to think about how we can leverage these networks within communities to reach people who need to be reached.”
Wood co-led data collection and analysis for the project with Savannah D’Evelyn, postdoctoral researcher in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS).
Here are the team’s 6 recommended actions for communities contending with wildfires and smoke:
1. Clarify what is known about the physical and mental health impacts of wildfire smoke over the short, medium and long term.
“We found that people could relate to the experiences of coughing a lot or having burning eyes during smoke, but they were unsure of what the effects were beyond what they were immediately feeling”—such as smoke’s potential for exacerbating lung and heart conditions, and increasing the risk of mortality, Wood said. Read more about the health impacts here.
The team also recommends that communities share information and resources about the broad lifestyle impacts of smoke season to build resilience.
“Smoke affects people's ability to exercise and to get out to be able to gather traditional foods, and it has mental health impacts,” Wood said. “It’s important to think about health effects holistically, and then clarify what people can do about them.”
2. Clarify the actions people can take to mitigate the health impacts of smoke exposure.
Most helpful is having a system to clean indoor air, such as a HEPA air cleaner or a do-it-yourself box fan filter.
“Staying inside is only so effective if you don't actively clean indoor air and seal your home,” Wood said. “For folks that have don't have the ability to do so, it’s important to evacuate, go to a shelter or wear a mask.”
3. Coordinate among local groups to ensure accuracy, consistency and reach of risk.
The team found that most community members got their information from trusted local sources including local and tribal government agencies, community information boards, local news, informal community networks and social media. Facebook was by far the most commonly used channel for information.
“Local and tribal agencies are generally more trusted than state or federal government because the information is locally and culturally relevant and comes from sources with whom residents have past experience,” the team wrote in their report. “Firefighters and fire departments are especially well-trusted sources.”
4. Emphasize one’s health and health of one’s community as central to wildfire resilience.
Community members often described their communities as “self-sufficient” or “independent” and shared that perceptions of “toughness” and “not wanting to appear weak” can get in the way of protecting one’s health.
“Messaging around the health impacts of wildfire smoke must emphasize that caring for one’s health is not a quality of weakness," the team wrote, “but rather a central element of continued resilience in the face of ongoing wildfires and wildfire smoke.”
5. Emphasize smoke-readiness and preparation.
Planning for wildfire smoke should happen throughout the year and can help community members manage the impacts of smoke from other sources, including prescribed fires and wood stoves.
This could include distribution of portable air cleaners, N95 masks and supplies to community members at high risk of smoke impacts, as well as creating community action plans and reducing other forms of air pollution. For example, community groups ORAP and Clean Air Methow prepare smoke-ready checklists and promote a Smoke-Ready Week on social media in early summer.
6. Address and mitigate increasingly frequent and severe wildfires.
Community members felt it was important to address the source of smoke by preventing wildfires using tools like prescribed fire and cultural burning, the team found.
“The different bands that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have been practicing cultural burning for thousands of years” to manage the impacts of wildfires, Wood said. “We learned a lot from their work with fire as a tool for mitigating fires and smoke.”
Sharing the results
The team hopes their recommendations will help local health departments and community groups plan their outreach as wildfires increasingly threaten health and safety. The US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington state agencies and community-based organizations have already shown interest in their findings.
The findings “go beyond just fire and smoke,” Wood said. “A huge component of this is community engagement, how to better reach communities about any environmental hazard—including and especially those on tribal reservations and in rural communities that have typically been overlooked.”
Additional team members include Ernesto Alvarado, professor, UW School of Environmental and Forestry Sciences; Cody Desautel, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Natural Resources Department; Nicole Errett, assistant professor, DEOHS; Juliette Randazza, MPH/MPA graduate, DEOHS and Evans School; Kris Ray, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Environmental Trust Department Air Quality Program and Okanogan River Airshed Partnership and June Spector, associate professor, DEOHS.
This project was funded by the UW Population Health Initiative and UW EarthLab.