By Elizabeth Walker
On May 21, our email and phone lines started blowing up. As the front house for the Methow Valley Clean Air Project, Dr. Raleigh Bowden and I frequently advise on air quality issues. And the issues are almost always about smoke.
In this case, valley residents were calling for information regarding smoke from the 400-acre Eightmile bottom prescribed burn in the Rendezvous. Typical weather patterns created reasonable ventilation for the burn during the day with upslope winds, but cooler temperatures overnight were sweeping that smoke down the Chewuch drainage and well into Winthrop and Twisp to settle. Air quality readings in town, several miles away from the burn, were in the unhealthy (for everyone) range the nights immediately after ignition, with conditions reading moderate to unhealthy for sensitive populations for several more days. Three weeks after ignition, I heard from friends in Edelweiss that they were still experiencing some significant nighttime smoke.
Unfortunately, and highly impractically, advice to “sensitive populations” — anyone with respiratory or cardiac disease or diabetes, children, anyone over 65, pregnant women, and anyone who has suffered a stroke — is simply to get out of the smoke. Indoor air purifiers with HEPA filters can create a clean, safe space, but life demands that we leave the house. During the Urchin burn, we heard from three households who made arrangements to leave the valley or sleep elsewhere as their symptoms were so bad.
This is the most recent, but by no means isolated, incident where fire — whether natural or manmade — has created smoke with significant health impacts. Fire in and around the valley is inevitable, and sometimes a very useful tool. However, smoke is a nasty byproduct that impacts everyone on a range from mild irritation of the throat and eyes, to exacerbating heart and lung disease.
What struck me in the phone calls I fielded on the Eightmile bottom burn, was that most people were not looking for health advice. They weren’t mad that the forests were being managed with prescribed fire. They were upset because they couldn’t breathe, and they wanted to know why.
The Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Ecology and Environmental Protection Agency all have unique but interfacing roles in managing smoke and keeping it away from people during prescribed burns. Each agency is staffed with well-intentioned individuals doing their job. However, the overall system needs improvement, and a striking flaw is the lack of an effective system for receiving and tracking feedback from the public about their experience and exposure to smoke during a burn. Furthermore, no additional monitoring of smoke, e.g. through the deployment of mobile monitors, is typically performed to determine whether smoke was a “nuisance” to nearby population centers.
Without this documentation or communication channel, the DNR and Forest Service lack the ability to measure and evaluate objectives safeguarding public health. If we don’t measure or track the impact of smoke on people, there is no real pressure to refine the system.
The Methow Valley Clean Air Project is working several angles to improve this situation:
• Hosting a community meeting in the Methow with the DNR on July 30 to discuss revisions to the Smoke Management Plan, DNR’s guiding document for management of smoke-related day-to-day operations. More details will be announced later; all are encouraged to attend.
• Meeting with the Forest Service, DNR and Ecology to ask for a formal Smoke Complaint process for prescribed burns. Currently calls can be directed to the Smoke Complaint Hotline (1-866-211-6284) managed by the Department of Ecology, but a better system is needed.
• Deploying a network of low-cost air quality sensors throughout the valley as a “Clean Air Ambassador” citizen science project. These monitors provide acceptably accurate and precise readings on air pollution that can provide many more data points that can help hold the Forest Service and DNR accountable for evaluating smoke behavior predictions.
• Teaching simple techniques for estimating smoke levels using our senses. Did you know that most of us can begin to smell smoke at concentrations that are unhealthy for sensitive populations?
• Finally, working to promote simple health protection strategies such as creating clean indoor air spaces with air purifiers and limiting outdoor activities when the air is unhealthy.
Think about someone you know who suffers when the air is bad. Maybe it’s someone with asthma or emphysema, maybe an aging parent struggling to breathe, or a wheezing child with their inhaler in hand. Think about the tremendous impacts smoke can have on healthy individuals. We work to keep our rivers clean and use water responsibly because we recognize this resource as foundational to our collective health, enjoyment of and future in this valley. It’s time to start thinking of our “airshed” in the same way we do our watershed and support solutions to keeping it clean.
Dr. Elizabeth Walker is an environmental toxicologist, mother, trail runner and nature lover. She heads up the Methow Valley Clean Air Project, a project of the Methow Valley Citizens Council.