Photo Credit: Banded Peak Rx Fire. Photo by Forest Stewards Guild
In 2018, the Forest Stewards Guild began our high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter loan program in Santa Fe. The short-term intent of the program was to support people during smoke impacts from prescribed burns when our partners in the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition were burning near the city. Long-term, our intention was to provide a service that could shift communities towards being better prepared for smoke and more adapted to wildland fire.
Getting the Word Out
With support from the City of Santa Fe Fire Department, we purchased 8 medium-sized HEPA filters. Each filter has the capacity to filter the air in a medium-sized living room and shelter someone from the worst effects of smoke particulates. To ensure that information about the loan program went out with the most recent information about prescribed burning, we had Public Information Officers (PIOs) from agencies include a notice in their outreach. By using an easy paper form system developed by the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (our FLN partners in California) we launched our own system for checking out the filters and the program began.
To broaden the impact beyond just loaning physical filters, we built a new web page where people could learn more about the program and find resources on how to reduce or limit exposure to smoke. We included information about how to protect yourself from smoke and offered advice about purchasing your own filter, in the hopes that some people would make informed decisions about protecting themselves with their own filter or face mask. We also provided additional smoke resources already available through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), New Mexico State Department of Health and others.
In the first several months of our program, we provided filters to many members of the community here in Santa Fe as well as sending four filters to Durango during the 416 fire where they were placed in evacuation centers and to Picuris Pueblo during the Sardinas Canyon fire.
Defining Scale and Purpose
Fairly quickly it became apparent that there was a problem of scale with our program since in Santa Fe we have about 1 filter for every 10,000 people. Over the first year of the program, this issue forced an important clarification about the purpose of the program. Although the Forest Stewards Guild mission is to support forests and communities where they intersect, we are not a public health agency, and this distinction is important. Mitigating broad smoke impacts must come from higher-level planning between burn managers and air quality officials. However, there is a gap formed where some individuals with acute sensitivities are impacted even when burn managers minimize smoke impacts to the point where most people are not affected. This gap determined the mission of the loan program. Our purpose was to support individuals who need short-term assistance with the impacts of smoke from prescribed fire and some wildfires. By recognizing this gap and defining purpose, we were able to open a channel of communication between individuals and the managers who are burning. Supporting individuals and increasing communication about why we are prescribed burning or managing wildfires are goals that are meaningful for forestry, wildfire or land management-focused organizations. It is also important for us to recognize and acknowledge that protecting an entire community during heavy smoke impacts from an extended wildfire will require a larger effort and partnerships with additional organizations.
Expansion of the Program
Our initial program success spurred an expansion of our services more broadly into northern New Mexico where there are hubs of prescribed fire activity. With investment from the New Mexico State University Extension Program and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net), we were able to purchase 21 additional HEPA filters. When we were searching for organizations to help supply blocks of homes with 3-4 loaner filters, the most important thing was finding partners that were excited about the mission of the program and were eager to be a program provider. We found a mix of agencies willing to try the program, including the village of Angel Fire Fire Department, the Chama District Office of New Mexico State Forestry and three Forest Service Districts. Once we found homes for the filters, we built a sister website on Fire Adapted New Mexico and contacted local PIOs to publicize the program. Lastly, we kept three additional filters in reserve to support prescribed burn operations that aren’t near one of the established filter locations but are needed on a burn-by-burn basis.
A practical solution that supports individuals when they need it
“A small percentage of the U.S. population considers smoke from wildland fires to be a serious issue. However, these individuals often have an existing health condition and can be the most vocal about health concerns – which can affect current and future management activities.” (Blades et al. 2001)
Although the total impact of a few filters is certainly small, they can provide targeted support to those that need it. In 2018, the Guild supported a Forest Service–led prescribed burn near El Rito in New Mexico. As part of the Guild collaborative burn team that included firefighters and engines, we also brought the mobile HEPA filter cache. The Forest Service was able to immediately loan out these filters to a few community members that had contacted them prior with concerns about smoke. And when we expanded the program later that year, the El Rito Ranger District became one of the first partners to adopt filters. The following July, there was a lightning strike just to the west of the 2018 prescribed burn. Rather than suppressing it, the District actively managed the fire, allowing it to safely grow to 2,000 acres of good fire on the landscape. (Read more about this fire event at FACNM) This time around, the District had the HEPA filters already in place to support the people they knew needed them.
Similarly, when the Guild mobilized to support the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—at the request of the BLM—on a burn near Tres Piedras adjacent to Carson National Forest, the Guild brought a small cache of filters to deliver to a few members of the nearby community that had smoke sensitivities and had requested HEPA filter assistance.
Unexpected successes in communication channels
“The lesson for managers who wish to introduce prescribed fire in their communities is that they are most likely to gain public support if they: 1) increase familiarity with the practice; and 2) work to build trust between officials from the implementing agency and the public.” (McCaffrey, S. M., 2006).
An unexpected success of the program is that it opened new channels of communication between the public and fire managers. The program provides an alternative way for people to voice their concerns about smoke while offering a partial solution. Every time we answer the phone to loan out a filter, we have an opportunity to talk about how we plan and implement prescribed fire and the ecological benefits of fire on the landscape. When the Guild offered filters during a prescribed burn we led near Penasco, NM, I was contacted by a member of the community that was concerned for his father who had recently been hospitalized for a respiratory illness. As we talked, I was able to explain how we had carefully selected burn days when the wind would drive smoke away from his community. He was pleased to find out about the extensive planning and said he would call back if the smoke ended up heading his way. Even though I didn’t end up loaning a filter to him, the program facilitated direct communication so we could talk about his concerns and I could explain the measures we were taking to address them.
Improved community resilience
One of the successes of the program is when a filter loan spurs someone into buying their own filter, building community resilience. In Cuba, NM where the Forest Service is managing a small cache of filters, people who utilized the program have later informed district staff how well they worked and of their intent to purchase their own filter. Now, at the first smell or sight of smoke, they can get their filter out of the closet for better in-home protection and air quality.
Partner–led implementation and innovation
By having our partners run their own small filter caches using a simple paper checkout system, we were able to improve the program to fit local needs. For example, the Fire Department in the village of Angel Fire in Colfax County loans out their filters when they are burning piles of vegetation gathered from residents who are clearing fuels around their homes. The Chama District of New Mexico State Forestry brought their filter cache to wildfires they were managing to support residents during those events. Additionally, having partners lead local efforts gives each partner the chance to open their own lines of improved communication with the communities they are working in.
Ease of program implementation
This program has demonstrated the simplicity and ease of setting up and running a filter loan program. For the cost of printing a few forms and purchasing four HEPA filters (Approximately $150 per filter), you could have a loaner filter program by the end of the week. Again, the Guild utilizes a paper form system to track our filters checked out to community members. The simplicity of this system allows anyone in an office to check out filters if the lead person is unavailable. The transportability of the paper system allows us to check out filters in the field, send the filters to partners and ensure partners are also checking them in and out correctly.
Improving and expanding the program, step-by step
As we work to improve our process and make our filter program more accessible to community members in need, we’ve determined a series of next steps, from maintaining all the way to monitoring.
1. Maintaining quality of filters and services
As we enter our third year of the HEPA filter loan program, we have a solid system in place to continue providing this service to local communities. We plan to keep the 29 filters we have in rotation and support our partners to keep adjacent programs running.
2. Expanding our goals
One of our next goals is to simply expand the program with more filters and more partners in locations where we don’t have coverage right now. As we expand the program, we can support new partners that are burning so they can extend support to their communities. We’re also excited about expanding the program so that we can see how other partners implement the program in their own way. Additionally, as we expand the program we need to make sure the outreach for the program is effective. We may need to reach out to other PIOs from adjacent agencies or try other modes of communication.
3. Messaging and outreach
As I mentioned earlier, our goals of this program were to support people during smoke impacts from prescribed burns and to provide a service that could shift communities towards being better prepared for smoke and more adapted to wildland fire. At this point it’s unclear how well program participants understand that our ultimate intention of the filter program is to support more prescribed fire. Below are three things we need to do moving forward to improve our messaging and outreach:
- Re-organize our website to make our intentions and goals more pronounced.
- Encourage program partners to share more information and education about prescribed fire when they are loaning out filters.
- Consider including a small flyer with each loan that explains the connection between this program to support community members and our concurrent mission to see more good fire on the landscape.
4. Supporting adaption
Eventually, we’d like participants to purchase they’re own filter for personal home use, as we are only able to provide short-term support. We’ve included information on our website about purchasing your own filter, but this information should be included on the flyer that accompanies the loaner filter too. Of course, filters can be cost-prohibitive, so we are also investigating a rebate or discount from manufacturers to encourage and enable people to purchase their own filters.
5. Monitoring to support improvements
Lastly, we’d like to implement some simple forms to monitor the effectiveness of the program. This could be as simple as having people fill out a short form when they return the filter or emailing them a link to an online survey.
Blades, J., Hall, T., & McCaffrey, S. Public Perceptions and Tolerance of Smoke from Wildland Fire. Chapter Submitted To: Smoke Management Guide for Prescribed and Wildland Fire – Revision of the 2001 Edition – National Wildfire Coordination Group
McCaffrey, S. M. (2006). Prescribed fire: what influences public approval?. In: Dickinson, Matthew B., ed. 2006. Fire in eastern oak forests: delivering science to land managers, proceedings of a conference; 2005 November 15-17; Columbus, OH. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-1. Newtown Square, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 192-198.
Sam Berry is Forest Stewards Guild’s Southwest Program Coordinator. He facilitates the return of good fire to the landscapes of New Mexico and beyond by supporting Fire Adapted Communities, prescribed fire training exchanges, collaborative burning, and treatment implementation to improve fire resiliency. Sam also designs written and web materials to increase understanding of the relation of wildland fire to the natural world and communities. He can be reached at sam[at]forestguild.org
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