How does ANTHC assist tribes in dealing with smoke episodes?
We don’t assist directly. What we do, is we help the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) modify documents about safety when wildfires are in the area and when to evacuate. We don’t actually go out and monitor in cases of wildfires and we don’t set regulations about when people should evacuate, but we helped develop the guidelines to help tribes make their own decisions.
Last year was the first year that our Environmental Health office was involved. In our Tribal Air program, we try to align our priorities with the priorities of the tribes we are serving each year. Last year, we had over 500 million acres burn in Alaska and wildfires jumped up pretty high on the list so we became more involved.
This year we didn’t do anything to modify the guidelines but we did send out a survey and I think we’ve now received 60-70 responses from folks across the state about what resources they have in cases of wildfires. If they have a “clean room” or a safe haven for residents, especially elders and vulnerable populations, they are asked to go there if there is smoke in the area.
What messages would ANTHC like to get out to tribes about preparing for this year’s wildfire season?
If there is smoke in the area, then we need to take measures to try and limit our exposures to it. And, if the fires are getting close to a community, to evacuate when people say to evacuate and not just try to ride it out, thereby putting people in danger.
We are specifically focusing on the role of ventilation as a way to protect residents when they are indoors. Do you have specific measures you recommend around ventilation?
I always say we want to ventilate as much as we can. If we’re not getting fresh air in the house, then everything that we’re doing is staying in the house. In the same way that we have lungs for our body to help bring in fresh air and get rid of the bad air, we want to use our ventilation systems to bring in fresh air to the house and get rid of the bad air.
In the case of wildfires, it’s a little bit trickier. We want to make sure that if we are bringing new air into the house that it is clean fresh air and we’re not bringing in smoky air and contaminating the house and over exposing ourselves. Which goes back to what we were saying about making sure that there’s a “clean room” available…a place that people can go where they can get clean fresh air.
Do you have specific resources you want tribes to have in hand?
I think that tribes should have an emergency preparedness plan. That means having a plan in place about what to do if people are going to stay in the community or if the smoke gets too close and how they are going to evacuate.
Published by: Erika Whittaker in THHN Partner Profiles