Please tell us about your public health response during previous wildfire or smoke episodes, including what has been effective in reaching the public and reducing their risk, and what you would like to see done in the future.
There are many public health responses we use when trying to address the threat of wildfire and subsequent smoke hazards. Our first step entails educating the community about what to expect during wildfire season and keeping them up to date with the latest wildfire information from fire smoke professionals. Additionally, these professionals are available throughout the season, which helps boost community morale and preparedness. We also partner with our local air agency, who lends us a monitor and helps us set it up in our community. This enables us to better monitor the smoke to determine how our community is affected and which parts need more immediate attention and action. We also have a permanent monitor established at our school, though that area is rarely effected by wildfire smoke.
Our next step is developing a smoke management and community outreach plan. Unfortunately, our smoke management plan does not keep public health as a priority, as we have a small window when our community is dry and when rainy season begins. In order to protect those who are vulnerable to smoke, we have a comprehensive community outreach plan that informs community members about when and where the burns are held (prescribed burning). We also work with our business community members to see if there are opportunities for tribal members to stay at the casino instead of having to stay in their homes or a place nearby.
I’ve also had the opportunity to work as an air resource advisor, which entails going out to wildfires and measuring their impact through monitoring, modeling and messaging for communities affected by smoke. This is incredibly beneficial because when you know that wildfire season is coming you can take action to protect those most important to you; your family, friends and your home. Especially those who have children with asthma, or mom or dad or somebody who is on oxygen or has an underlying illness. So by being able to provide outreach and information, that’s been a tremendous help in helping our community members stay safe.
As someone who works for a tribe, I thought it was really important to have people with that kind of background able to work with our community. When tribes like Colville or Yakama and Spokane are affected by smoke, people outside of tribal areas often don’t know that the tribes have their own air quality programs, or how tribal governments work. Yet a lot of tribes have really great information, have monitors running, are aware of the smoke-impacted areas, and are aware of who is at risk in the community. All of that tribal knowledge is just tremendous information for trying to help our communities stay safe.
What are the specific communication channels you use to reach out to your community during a wildfire or smoke event?
On reservation, we can post in public places if it’s advanced notice. We also have our monthly newsletter and an internet E-Board where we can give people updates. So it’s everything from “here’s some upcoming bad weather” to “happy birthday” to the smoke thing. Word of mouth is a big way spread things around, so if I just talk to people in my department or in my division, then word will certainly spread.
And then on a broad scale, we’ve done public meetings, inviting community members to participate. Our community is really interested in what the incident management team has to say about how to manage fires. So we try to add on to their information by giving a quick update and providing a list of resources available. One of those resources is the Washington smoke blog with updates and forecasts. They have similar blogs in Oregon and Idaho and are a really good way for people to stay up to date, every day. And we usually add photos and have a link to a webcam where viewers can see what the smoke looks like. Then there are public information officers who forecast and post photos.
Do you work with your health clinics?
We have the common issue here of information being in silos and in different departments. Though I think our health clinic and I have done a really good job of trying to work together. I also work with our environmental health specialist and we’ll send each other articles and create fact sheets together. We haven’t worked much on smoke or fire yet, but have started collaborating on presentations for tribal staff on wildfires and health impacts.
Published by: Erika Whittaker in THHN Partner Profiles