Ashland, OR and the Rogue Valley. Photo by Mackenzie Cooper courtesy of Unsplash.

A Breath of Fresh Air: The City of Ashland’s Air Purifier Pilot Program

By: Chris Chambers Katie Gibble, Sara Jones

Topic: Collaboration Preparedness Smoke

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Editor’s Note: These three authors are staff of the Ashland Fire and Rescue Wildfire Division (City of Ashland, OR). This blog was written prior to the Almeda Fire that has resulted in significant loss in the nearby communities of Talent and Phoenix and impacts to other communities in the county. FAC Net wants to extend our heartfelt wishes for the communities impacted by the fires and smoke. We hope this blog post, featuring some work done by Ashland Fire and partners around smoke resiliency will shine a light on some of the good work happening in the Rogue Valley. 

Photo of cars lined up and volunteers in masks helping load boxes into cars

Ashland Fire & Rescue’s Wildfire Division teamed up with CERT to distribute hundreds of air purifiers. Photo by Chris Chambers

The saying goes, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” But in the Rogue Valley of southwestern Oregon, the phrase might better be said “wherever there’s fire, we get smoke.”

The summers of 2017 and 2018 were a testament to that version of the phrase, as fires burning many miles away throughout the region laid their smoke in the Rogue Valley, settling over Ashland. Weeks of smoke damaged our visitor-based economy and threatened the health of many of our smoke-vulnerable residents.

Firefighter Katie Gibble inspects the air purifier unit out front of firehouse.

Ashland Fire & Rescue staff disassemble an air purifier to understand its components. Photo by Chris Chambers.

As part of an increasing and ongoing response, the City of Ashland, a member of our Smokewise Ashland community collaborative, received an $85,000 grant this past year from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to give away 500 HEPA air purifiers to help better prepare Ashland’s most smoke-vulnerable residents.

Ashland has been preparing for the impacts of smoke for years. In 2016, the Smokewise Ashland collaborative was formed. The collaborative, which includes Ashland’s Chamber of Commerce, Ashland Fire and Rescue, Asante Ashland Community Hospital, Jackson County Health and Human Services, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the City’s Wildfire Safety Commission, and Southern Oregon University works to unify efforts preparing residents, visitors and businesses for smoke. The Smokewise Ashland website shares key information with residents on smoke topics such as how to improve indoor air quality, how to properly wear a respirator, and ways to avoid smoke exposure. Smokewise Ashland has also facilitated engaging educational presentations and workshops to businesses and residents.

In 2018, the State of Oregon revamped its smoke management plan, allowing added flexibility for prescribed burning, an important tool to protect communities and landscapes from wildfire. Previously on this blog, Ed Keith described this change in smoke rules taking place in Oregon.

In 2019, Oregon DEQ began to offer grant funds to help communities develop Community Response Plans for smoke and launch pilot projects that address the impact of smoke. The City of Ashland wanted to be proactive in protecting their most smoke-vulnerable residents, especially recognizing the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project’s critical need to escalate the pace and scale of burning and that the smoke from those burns could increasingly impact these residents. Add to that the understanding that the Smoke Response Plan is a critical element to increase burn acres, the City took action and applied for state grant funds and received them.

The goal of the air purifier pilot project was simple: to do the greatest good for the greatest number of residents. The City decided to purchase as many HEPA grade, stand-alone air purifiers as we could and distribute them to Ashland’s most smoke-vulnerable residents. Nationally, other programs have implemented air purifier loan programs (e.g. Montana, Santa Fe, Klamath River) where purifiers are loaned out, then retrieved once the smoke has dissipated. However, in Ashland we recognized that prescribed fires and wildfires and their associated smoke would be part of our fire adapted community for years to come. So instead of loaning out the purifiers, we decided to distribute purifiers for smoke-vulnerable residents to keep. This decision made it very important to comprehensively identify and encourage Ashland’s most smoke-vulnerable residents to apply for the program.

Residents applying to receive an air purifier were qualified based on the following criteria:

  • Households with age-vulnerable residents, including children under 15 and residents over 65;
  • Residents predisposed by heart and lung problems such as asthma and COPD;
  • Applicants with the greatest financial need.

With these criteria in mind, we engaged our community partners to help get as many applications from smoke-vulnerable residents as we could. There were several obvious partners; Asante (the regional hospital system) could connect us with patients that are vulnerable to smoke, our local Senior Center was a great conduit to residents over 65, and Ashland School District could connect us to households with smoke-vulnerable children. Our partners also helped us expand our net by identifying other organizations with connections to smoke-vulnerable populations. For example, during a conversation with Options for Helping Residents of Ashland (OHRA), a local non-profit that offers social services, we learned about the Southern Oregon University’s Student Family Housing and their work with students with families of limited income – a prime candidate for our program.

During our three-week application period, our partners encouraged members in their network to apply for a purifier. To ensure we didn’t miss any smoke-vulnerable individuals we also launched a social media campaign and earned coverage in the local newspaper, on public radio, and the City’s website. Additionally, we sent postcards to 240 senior or disabled residents who are on reduced payment plans for City utilities. Applicants were directed to the Smokewise Ashland website to apply in either English or Spanish. The Ashland Senior Center, OHRA, and City staff helped applicants with limited ability or computer access to apply over the phone.

We designed the application to be very straight forward. In addition to basic contact information, we asked the following questions, derived from the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

  • How many people in the household have heart or lung disease, asthma or COPD?
  • How many children ages 0-5, 6-10, 11-15 are in the household?
  • How many adults over 65 are in the household?
  • What is the gross annual income from all household members?
  • Does anyone in the household smoke?

With guidance from Ashland’s Affordable Housing Program, we created a point system so we could rank the applications. The point system weighted heavily on household income; we wanted these purifiers to get to people who would otherwise not be able to purchase the purifier due to a limited budget.

We received 725 applications for 500 air purifiers. Applicants who ranked below the top 500 were given a manufacturer’s coupon from Winix to purchase a discounted purifier. This discount was offered specifically for Ashland’s purifier program.

Boxes of air purifiers lined up

Air purifiers lined up outside of the Ashland Senior Center, ready to be distributed. Photo by Chris Chambers.

Applicants who did qualify were invited to attend one of three distribution days that were hosted outside the middle school, the Senior Center, and the police station. Distributing 500 air purifiers is no small task! We turned to our local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers to provide much-needed hands to help load purifiers into resident’s cars. The distribution days were hot, and the volunteers were required to wear masks and gloves, but the gratitude of the recipients kept the volunteers motivated. Car after car thanked the CERT volunteers for their time.

Three people in masks stand under a tent holding air purifiers.

Ashland CERT volunteers at the ready to safely distribute air purifiers to 500 of Ashland’s most smoke vulnerable residents. Photo by Katie Gibble.

Several qualified applicants did not have access to a vehicle, or did not drive, so we set up personal delivery for those thirty residents. During delivery we wore masks and gloves, did not step foot inside the recipient’s household and gave verbal instructions to ensure the resident could operate the purifier. The extra caution taken for deliveries was critical, as residents who requested delivery often represent not only Ashland’s most smoke-vulnerable residents, but also those most at risk for COVID-19.

So, who did we help?

The greatest number of residents who received a purifier came from the school district (32%), from public notifications like the newspaper and post to the City website (24%), and the postcard (11%). The majority of recipient households earn <80% of the area’s mean annual income. 47% of recipients have at least one child in the household, and 43% of recipients have at least one resident over 65 in the household. Additionally, 65% of recipients had at least one person in the household who has a pre-existing condition.

All 500 purifiers have now been distributed, but our engagement with Ashland’s most smoke-vulnerable residents doesn’t end there. During the application process, we were able to capture all applicants phone numbers, with permission. These phone numbers are now part of Ashland’s community alert system, Nixle, and they receive text/calls when smoke levels get high enough that they should turn on their purifier. Additionally, their numbers have been included on a larger Nixle notification list, with over 2,500 subscribers, that notifies recipients when prescribed fire is taking place in the area.

In Ashland, a big component of being a fire adapted community is to be adapted to smoke. Thanks to the work of the Smokewise Ashland collaborative, many of Ashland’s most smoke-vulnerable can now say “wherever there’s fire, we are ready for smoke.”

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