Stress takes a valleywide toll
Smoke, fires and the unending pandemic are taking a toll on people’s physical and mental health.
“It’s mostly mental health — everyone’s just so fried. They can’t focus and are constantly checking their phones for fire updates and air-quality information,” Clean Air Methow Director Liz Walker said.
Walker left the valley this week to give her kids a break from the smoke. “People are wondering if they can make it through — they don’t know how long it will last,” she said.
Valley residents are fatigued and have headaches from the smoke, and many are just burnt out, said Mike Tuggy, medical director at the Methow Valley Clinic in Winthrop. People in homes with poor indoor air quality are really suffering, he said.
Still, the clinic hasn’t been seeing more patients with acute symptoms from the smoke. People with asthma are using their inhalers, which are very effective. In fact, the clinic has more open appointments available than usual because so many people have left town, Tuggy said.
People are ordering refills for their inhalers just to be prepared if they do have problems, Clinical Medical Director Allison Fitzgerald at Family Health Centers in Twisp said.
But the effect on mental health has been real and serious.
Room One has seen a significant increase in people experiencing severe stressors since the fires started three weeks ago, Room One Client Advocate Maureen Collins said. Suicidal ideation has intensified because people feel constantly afraid and have nowhere to go, Collins said.
With people stuck inside and resilience collapsing under so many stressors, there’s been more violence in the home, Collins said. Client advocates have seen a greater need for safety planning for people suffering physical or emotional abuse from a partner or family member.
The fires and smoke came just when many people were getting back on their feet after the prolonged stress and financial uncertainty of the COVID pandemic. Some people had just gone back to work, only to find their hours cut or jobs disappear completely because of the drop in tourism, Collins said. Large employers like Sun Mountain Lodge and the Freestone Inn have been evacuated and shut down completely.
People who were expecting a carefree summer to revitalize after the pandemic are now stressed out and isolated again. The pool has closed and kids can’t be outside, so everyone is feeling cooped up, Collins said. “There are none of the normal outlets,” she said.
Many people who can have left the valley, but some need to be here for work, can’t afford to leave, or have nowhere to go, Collins said.
The Methow Valley Clinic has also seen people struggling with anxiety or PTSD, particularly those who’ve lived through previous fires, Tuggy said.
Methow At Home Executive Director Tracy Sprauer has been delivering masks, fans and filters to clients. “The smoke, evacuations and sense of uncertainty have dampened our joie de vivre,” Sprauer said. Still, she’s struck by how resilient many of their clients are.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that more people than ever want to learn about air pollutants and ensure they have clean indoor air, Walker said. Although the smoke from the two wildfires currently menacing the Methow Valley is temporary, smoke is a reality of our lives — from woodstoves in the winter; prescribed burning in the spring and fall; and more wildfires as climate change brings hotter, drier weather to this area.
The Purple Air program now has 26 sensors around the valley, from Lost River through Pateros, Walker said.
“Wildfire smoke will be with us for years to come. We need to find a way for it not to be detrimental to our health,” Walker said.
Clean Air Methow and Room One have been giving out box fans and filters that make an inexpensive indoor air purifier. As of Friday (July 30), Room One had given out more than 60 fans and filters to people on a low or fixed income, and to those who are vulnerable — elders, people with young children, and those with chronic respiratory disease, Collins said.
Room One was also able to give out fresh produce donated by the Mazama Store and the Fork food truck when they closed or had fewer customers, Collins said. “People have been very grateful,” she said.
“We’ve been here before, and we’ll get through this again,” Collins said.
Air-quality readings and forecasts
• www.cleanairmethow.org/purple-air-map (In the box that shows what the different colored dots mean, be sure to set it for “US EPA” in the drop-down menu on the right under the word ‘Conversion.” That will make the readings more accurate.)
• www.airnow.gov (see the “Fires” tab)
Fires and air quality: A page of links to information about fires and air quality is the first item on the Methownet bulletin board at https://methownet.com/bulletinboard.
Masks: Different styles of masks are available for free
Air quality and masks
Exposure to smoke is harmful because the soot collects in the lungs and, while most soot will clear in the mucus, some stays there for the rest of your life, said Mike Tuggy, medical director at the Methow Valley Clinic. Children are at particular risk because they have more years to build up long-term damage.
It’s crucial to wear a mask designed to filter the harmful PM2.5 particles in smoke, rated either N95 or KN95. Masks with a good seal will block the harmful particulates, Tuggy said. “I worry about firefighters not wearing filtration masks,” he said.
Websites and apps that provide air-quality readings are helpful not just as a source of hyperbolic numbers, but also for knowing when you have to protect yourself. With so many recent days in the valley in the 400 and 500 range for particulates (on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, a reading of 201 means unhealthy conditions for everyone), people may feel nonchalant when the reading drops to 100 and the air seems clearer. But it’s unhealthy to breathe that air for a prolonged period, Tuggy said.