Staying vigilant about air quality year-round
By Lazo Gitchos
Last week brought smoke from the Sourdough Fire in the North Cascades, which twice forced closure of Highway 20 west of Rainy Pass, darkened skies from Methow to Mazama and drove air quality well into the unhealthy range.
Though the Methow enjoyed relatively easy breathing through the end of July this year, the possibility of wildfire smoke events and poor air quality is ever present in the valley, and residents should be prepared this year and in the future.
“We’ve had a relatively light wildfire smoke season thus far,” said Liz Walker, who works with the Okanogan, Chelan/Douglas, Grant and Kittitas County Health Districts, collectively the Region 7 Health Care Alliance, to build wildfire smoke resiliency. Walker served as director of local advocacy group Clean Air Methow, a program of Methow Valley Citizens Council, for 10 years, and currently advises the group.
“I encourage everyone to try to enjoy each beautiful summer day we get without worrying about what might or might not be coming — this is not always easy,” Walker said. “Many in our community have very few choices about how to reduce their exposure to smoke if they make their living outdoors or cannot leave the area when it gets smoky. Children, seniors, anyone with heart and lung disease, and pregnant women and their fetuses are more sensitive to the health impacts of smoke. Those are the people we focus on the most in becoming a ‘smoke-ready community.’”
Air quality literacy
Walker says navigating the plethora of air quality monitoring data can be confusing for many people.
Part of community wildfire smoke resiliency, Walker says, is building “air quality literacy” so that community members can access data to inform their decisions. The Methow, partly as a result of Clean Air Methow’s Clean Air Ambassadors program, boasts one of the largest rural networks of low-cost air quality monitoring sensors in the U.S., allowing everyone to access hyperlocal air quality information that can inform activity and safety. There are also two regulatory monitors in Winthrop and Twisp maintained by the Washington State Department of Ecology, used to uphold public health standards.
Walker recommends accessing air quality data through airnow.gov or the wasmokeblog.blogspot.com, where it is displayed from both regulatory monitors and low-cost sensors — with correction factors already applied and data uniformly displayed. By clicking on any specific sensor dot and the word “history,” data from the last seven days is displayed as hourly and 10-minute averages.
“Low-cost sensors are really great tools,” Walker said, but the data must be corrected “in order to be as accurate as possible.” The map interface on these websites also shows wildfires with links to their smoke forecasts if available.
Limiting harmful effects
Reducing smoke exposure is the key to protecting health during smoke season, Walker said. For many, leaving the affected area is not an option, but there are some steps that can help protect vulnerable populations. First, understanding air quality information can help inform decisions.
Clean Air Methow Program Coordinator Anna Mounsey said, “Minimizing exposure where [we] can” is key, balancing outdoor jobs or lifestyles with reducing exposure to smoky air. One way to do this is to improve indoor air, reducing exposure when inside. “We want everyone in Okanogan County to be able to create their own indoor clean air,” Mounsey said.
While commercial air filters can be prohibitively expensive, filters made from box fans and HEPA MERV13 filters can be made at home for about $40, Mounsey said. Clean Air Methow distributed 270 of these filters last summer through an environmental justice grant from the EPA, and instructions to build your own are available at cleanairmethow.org/health.
When smoke exposure is unavoidable, wearing a well-fitted N-95 mask can limit the intake of harmful particulate matter. Clean Air Methow supplies N-95 masks available for pickup at the Mazama Store.
People especially vulnerable to smoke exposure, including people over 65, outdoor workers, those who are pregnant and those affected by respiratory or heart disease, can contact their primary care provider or email email@example.com for additional resources to help mitigate smoke exposure.
The Methow may have a reputation for blue skies among locals and visitors alike, but unique topography, airflow and seasonal factors mean the valley’s air quality year-round — not just during fire season — can pose health risks to residents. Due to winter inversion effects and the prevalence of wood heating, the Methow’s wintertime air quality is often poor. This is a nuisance for some, and a serious health risk for others, including young children, elders and those with underlying health conditions.
To help reduce winter air pollution, Clean Air Methow’s woodstove exchange program allows qualified households to exchange older, less-efficient stoves for newer, cleaner, more-efficient ones for free. Through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Clean Air Methow has swapped 32 old woodstoves for new ones, the pollution equivalent of taking 160 old diesel trucks off the road, according to a press release.
Walker says that outdoor burning in the fall and spring can also contribute to poor air quality in the shoulder seasons. Even in seasons when burn bans are not in effect, residents should be aware of wind conditions, air stagnation, and air quality concerns.
Air quality literacy is a year-round endeavor. “My hope is that people get comfortable with air quality data and use the numbers to plan their days just like they might around the temperature or precipitation,” Walker said. “Taking air quality into consideration and making our buildings and homes safer by cleaning indoor air are two big ways we can reduce overall exposures and stay healthy.”