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.
Half a million acres were burned by the fires, which affected the reservation and the entire surrounding Okanagan and Ferry county communities. Within the boundaries of the reservation, Colville Tribe lost more than 250,000 acres of land and forest. There was a lot of smoke in the air for quite a long period, which means the health effects may be chronic – taking place over time.
One of the actions I took was to purchase a particulate monitor so I could measure indoor and outdoor particulate matter (PM). I measured numerous facilities and was pretty startled by the results: they were all well above the hazard zone - close to 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) inside the buildings. (Hazard level measures start at 250ug/m3 on the air quality index.)
Using the PM monitor, I went around and measured particulate levels, sent the data to our administrators, and educated people about the health effects of hazardous indoor air quality. Consequently, the administrators sent everyone home and gave people administrative leave for three days because of our measurements and outreach.
That led us to look at how we were managing our buildings for indoor air quality. As an example, we made sure that all the air conditioning units in our tribal facilitates were shut off, as they were pulling in air (from the outside). Not only that, the filters weren’t capable of filtering out smoke with readings that high. Another example is that I went to each building and recommended they use only use one door, make sure fans are set in the right spot. and that they were using our air filtration units. Additionally, our department ended up giving out thousands of N-95 masks to wear, which can prevent inhalation of fine particles. The masks were mostly donated from entities off the reservation. Along with the masks, I created an instructions document on how to properly wear a mask, using a tribal elder as a model.
Some of the other departments, including Tribal Health and Indian Health Service brought in extra nursing staff and volunteers to visit community members to ensure that everybody was okay. They also distributed brochures on the effects of wildfire smoke. The document included guidelines on what constitutes high concentrations of smoke and how it affects your health. Additionally, the health clinics made inhalers easy to obtain in case people were running out of medication.
Gearing up for this next season, is there anything that you learned from last year that you’re implementing this season? Currently, we are updating our wildfire and smoke brochure. We’ve also written Standard Operating Procedures for sampling facilities, creating a methodical way for going out and recording data. The process will be standardized and will include data analysis and reporting to tribal administration.
We have three permanent continuous monitors on the reservation to measure PM2.5. I’ve also done an Emissions Inventory, including data from the last nine years. It showed that wildfire smoke is the largest source of particulates and health risks to the people on the reservation. So a lot of our work is geared towards helping people cope with the wildfire smoke.
What are the specific communication channels you use to reach out to your community during a wildfire or smoke event?
I did a lot of educational outreach on indoor and outdoor air quality, as well as sending out air quality alerts and warnings for ambient air quality. I also worked with the Air Resource Advisors that were brought into the area. We also put out messaging for the general public including on reservation These messages we developed were sent over a broadcast system through our tribal government which reaches 1,200 people. The messages also went out over several Facebook pages, our tribal tribune, emergency management/emergency services Facebook page, and the Okanagan emergency services page. We also use bulletin boards and our website.
In addition to our wildfire brochure, we have public announcements during wildfire season on how high the concentrations are and what that means for people’s health. One of the staff in our department is the public information officer for fire control, and together we send out a lot of air quality information, to the public and to the fire camps.
Who are the specific audiences you reach out to? We send out information to all at-risk populations: elders, kids, anyone with heart disease, lung disease, or asthma. There’s specific language in all of our literature which details precautions to stay healthy if you have any of these diseases.
We also have a lot of communications with other tribal departments, such as our tribal health, EMS, Emergency services, and IHS. As the program grows, we’re getting more attention which is really good so that people take note that there are effects of wildfire smoke.
We’ve sent materials to all the schools and the surrounding area, including a guide that Washington State put out based on Idaho and Oregon, giving school districts guidance on what they should be doing during wild fire smoke incidents.
What are the specific measures you recommend to people when they are inside their home? And if they are tangible items (masks, stand-alone air filters, etc), do you pay for them or provide for them at cost?
I don’t run an indoor air quality program in this department so most of my work has been with tribal facilities. It is challenging to get in and talk to people individually. I haven’t done anything specifically for individual homes.
All of our fact sheets have a couple goals in mind for the message. First off – to make it culturally appropriate. If you do a web search and you get some of these federal documents it’s just basic language that is exactly the same as every other population, it just has a salmon motif behind it and they call that a tribal approach. Well, it’s not. Our goal is to make it culturally appropriate and make it so that somebody will read it. And then we figure we are ahead of the game. We had about 600 wildfire smoke brochures that we put together. We put about 450 of these right into somebody’s hand.
Published by: Erika Whittaker in THHN Partner Profiles