Photo of smoke and clouds gathering over an Oregon skyline, Photo by Canva Creative Commons

Editor’s Note: Alison Lerch joined the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network team in 2021 to form and facilitate the Smoke Learning Group. Since 2007, Alison has supported wildfire programs for state and local government, tribes and nonprofit organizations. Alison has a deep passion for pushing the boundaries of forming and sustaining essential partnerships and creating equitable programs that reach the whole community. Ali lives in Salida, Colorado and now works for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director’s Office as their Wildfire Mitigation Program Administrator. Here Ali shares some takeaways and resources gathered as part of the Smoke Learning Group. 

It has been another summer where almost everyone I know across the country has, in some way, been affected by wildfires and the smoke that follows. From a recent story in KCRW, “The impacts of wildfire smoke could be one of the largest climate-related impacts across the Western U.S. And as we’re seeing increasingly, it’s not just limited to the Western U.S.,” Burke said.

I’m starting to wonder when I will stop categorizing summers by wildfire severity, as each year progressively tells a similar or worsening story. For wildfire practitioners, the story is embedded in our soul; although fire years are unpredictable, being prepared for a challenging one is essential. 

I find immense hope in all the preparation we complete as wildfire specialists, citizens and fire managers, to live with wildfire in a more healthy way. Colleagues are pushing forward the need to get more prescribed fire on the ground to create resilient landscapes and protect communities. And I too have been humbled and hopeful by the opportunity to lead a group of thoughtful practitioners and public health specialists throughout the first half of 2021 in a learning group focused on smoke and smoke readiness. 

The Smoke Learning Group, hosted by FAC Net, provided an opportunity for close to 50 practitioners from across the country to come together monthly, talk about opportunities and challenges, and share best practices that enable their communities to better prepare for inevitable smoke. Conversations with smoke leaders, such as Sarah Coefield with Climate Smart Missoula and the Missoula City-County Health Department and Dr. Sarah McCaffrey of the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station, helped practitioners explore what is possible with respect to smoke programs, how to communicate with communities effectively, and more. Converging public health and wildfire readiness was powerful, as no amount of smoke is healthy, to anyone — this was the lens our learning group worked through. There are some fundamental themes we centered around and the resources shared were vast, varied and powerful. 

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Being Smoke-Ready is Personal

Being smoke ready is both a personal and community scale initiative. As practitioners, we have the unique opportunity to identify needs on the community scale, but before we can ready our communities for smoke from prescribed fire or wildfire, we also need to embody a life of good health and smoke preparation ourselves. Thinking back to 2017 in Southwest Oregon, when Ashland had some of the worst air quality in the US, I had to take many actions to better prepare my own home. In the process, I learned a lot. 

  • I studied the windows in my 1978 house in Talent, Oregon with a portable air sensor during a heavy smoke day, watching the sensor increase and decrease in PM2.5 as the wind would blow. Smoke was leaking into my house through the window frame. 
  • I researched my furnace and found a YouTube video that showed me where I could install an additional MERV 13 rated air filter. After running my HVAC system on the fan setting for six weeks straight, I burned out the motherboard. I was grateful for my home warranty on that day. 
  • I only entered my house from the garage during smoke events and put the Portable Air Cleaner next to the door. 

I was doing these things not only to practice what I was talking with my community about, but for my own peace of mind. I needed to know that my family and cats were breathing the cleanest air possible. I also knew I could take these practices back to my community and stakeholders who were also seeking ways to ensure a clean breath of air. Being smoke-ready does quite literally start at home. 

Learning From Practitioners Across the Nation

Fortunately, smoke-ready programs across the country have been evolving since my time in Oregon and the last six months with the Smoke Learning Group have provided an incredible learning journey into HEPA filter community programs, prescribed fire outreach, smoke monitoring tools and more.

> We collected all the resources and programs shared throughout the learning group and I invite you to peruse these resources.

In addition to the monthly Smoke Learning Group meetings, FAC Net had an incredible opportunity to partner with the West Region Wildland Fire Leadership Council on two national webinars: Resident HEPA Filter Programs: Community Solutions for Creating Clean Air and Prescribed Fire Smoke and Community Health: Successes From Smoke Ready Communities. The webinars were recorded and are available for viewing on FAC Net’s YoutTube channel and the West Region of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council’s Shared Learning Series page. I had the privilege of working with incredible partners throughout the country to bring these webinars together, including Peter Lahm, USDA Forest Service and Katie Stewart, EPA, both Air Resource Specialists and contributors to EPA’s Smoke Ready Communities program.

> Download the Prescribed Fire and Community Health Webinar Resources List when you get a chance.

 

Partnerships Matter

Throughout the Smoke Learning Group and webinar series, it was clear that to create an effective community smoke program, partnerships and trust are essential. This makes sense as partnerships and trust are big parts of fostering fire adapted communities. Before starting any type of community HEPA filter program, identify partners within your community that may have a stake in community health and well-being. Reach out to:

  • Public Health Organizations
  • Community Organizations assisting aging, underserved populations and/or non-english speaking residents
  • Fire Departments
  • Schools
  • Daycare Facilities
  • Medical Professionals 
  • Religious and Spiritual Centers 
  • Resilience and Recovery Specialists
  • Chambers of Commerce

Consider creating a formal or informal partnership and meet regularly. Discover what each partner can bring to the table and then fill in the gaps with additional resources or grants. As a group, decide what type of services are needed for your community. 

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce in southwest Oregon is a great example of a community partner willing to put community health first during fire season, which historically is the busiest time for tourism. They are a key partner in Smokewise Ashland and have testified before the Oregon House Economic Development and Trade Committee to spread awareness. 

Whose got the money?

Another resounding theme in community smoke preparedness is how to pay for a community-scale effort. Portable HEPA filters and their replacement parts come at a price that not everyone can afford. We learned from Kris Ray of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that there are low cost solutions for creating indoor air filters.

Ashland Fire & Rescue was awarded a large grant from the state to purchase residential air cleaners and large room air scrubbers.

Although you wouldn’t guess from Climate Smart Missoula’s incredible website and nationally recognized program, Missoula City-County Health Department is still in need of a sustainable funding mechanism for their air cleaner loan program. Their success is based on trust and relationships and getting the biggest impact with their investments. Part of their focus is on daycare centers and places where a few filters will create clean air for the most people.

As a learning group we felt the need for a call to action on identifying sustainable funding sources, especially for community members with the most need. 

Equitable Smoke Preparedness

We can’t stop at creating clean residential indoor spaces as we all have community members who live and work outside. If no amount of smoke is good, and smoke exposure is detrimental to a person’s health and well-being, we must take care of our most at-risk residents. Work with community groups, religious organizations and local municipalities to identify centralized locations where residents without homes can also have a safe place to go. Create smoke shelters in a similar fashion to winter shelters. Let’s not forget outdoor workers too. There is still a lot of work to do to make living with wildfire equitable for all.

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Smoke and community health are the pieces of fire adapted communities that I feel the most passionate about. Smoke affects everyone; air is universal. Tackling this issue is not a solo proposition. It is also not an easy one. However, nothing is ever lost from making a phone call and pitching the idea that you want to develop a program to protect the health and well-being of your community, together.

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