Editor’s note: Smoke from wildfires and some prescribed fire events can be disruptive, if not dangerous, for community members. Adding a filter to the home can help mitigate the presence of smoke. In this blog, FAC Net’s Member Services Associate David Burchfield recaps some success stories from grantees across the country that took part in FAC Net’s Community Clean Air Project.
As wildfire seasons get worse each year, so do the accompanying smoke effects that communities experience due to wildfires or prescribed fires. It seems like anywhere you go in the western US (or even in the east in 2023!), everyone has experienced more than a few consecutive days of smoke in the air and poor air quality – from children in schools, to senior citizens at home, and everyone in between.
Increased particulate air content linked to smoke is known to cause adverse health effects, especially in certain more vulnerable populations (for example: the very young, the elderly, those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, those with less economic means, pregnant people, and outdoor workers). One thing that fire adaptation practitioners can do to ease the impacts of smoke on their communities (and perhaps mitigate smoke concerns connected to prescribed fire) is establish a program to increase access to HEPA filter air purifiers through grants, loans, or vouchers.
In 2023, the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net) administered a grant through funding from an anonymous foundation to support projects that would improve access to clean air during smoke events around the country. Through collaboration with Fire Adapted Montana and additional FAC Net funding, we were able to extend this program to impact 12 communities across six western states (AZ, CA, CO, ID, OR, MT). Hundreds of air filters were distributed throughout these communities, particularly to residents at a higher risk for health impacts from smoke exposure, including the elderly, very young, and economically disadvantaged. Each grantee organization also noted the opportunity this project yielded for strengthening ties with community partners (like public health agencies and community centers) and residents as filters were distributed and public health education about smoke exposure was shared.
Over 350 air filters were purchased and distributed to both public and private spaces. Over 56 community partner organizations were engaged by grantees in the execution of their projects. Grantees estimate that they served about 1,500 people through their projects, serving nearly 600 households, utilizing at least 300 volunteer hours. Below is a round up of some of the projects funded this year.
This county in Oregon was able to distribute air purifiers to residents based on advanced age or health needs in concert with five community partners. Working together with agencies that serve residents directly helped organizers to identify and connect with people who needed assistance. Program coordinator Melinda Todd says, “We are able to provide those who need air purifiers, due to age or health, the opportunity to receive an air purifier at no cost. We are a very low income, frontier, rural community and this is a tremendous help in assisting our community in staying healthy during fire season but also during the winter when we are oftentimes bogged down with smoke from woodstoves being utilized for heat sources.”
Boise FD was able to pilot a clean air program that it has long wanted to launch – distributing filters in its first year in cooperation with 20 different partners. The program focused specifically on clean air rooms, combining this approach with education about the efficacy of air filters (most cannot clean more than one room at a time, and only those of modest size). Program coordinator Jerry McAdams says, “These filters will help them create a clean-room scenario within their dwelling to have a safe respite from the intrusion of wildfire smoke particulate matter, which would otherwise have negative physiological consequences for these vulnerable individuals.” In developing their program, Jerry noted the importance of protecting your agency and program through ensuring you have liability agreements in place: “We had our City of Boise attorney put together a simple hold-harmless agreement for residents that receive these HEPA filters.”
The Montana DNRC was able to combine FAC Net and state funds to amplify the reach of their clean air program. They distributed almost all of their filters, saving a handful to lend out during high smoke events. Program Manager Jorista Garrie underscored the valuable development of a new collaborative partnership that the program initiated: “I really appreciated getting to know our partners and having a successful program.” She also noted the impact of the program overall: “All the recipients have expressed [their] thanks and appreciation for the program. All our recipients are elderly with health conditions and this is making a huge difference in their lives.”
The City of Ashland focused on community education and distributing filters to agencies with public spaces and amplifying previous years’ work. Program manager Sara Jones tells it best:
“The City of Ashland (COA), through our Fire Adapted Ashland program (FAA), reached 40 seniors with indoor air quality education for an in-person class. During the two classes, participants were able to ask questions and explore the low-cost options available for making improvements for indoor air quality during periods of smoke. We were able to identify some strategies for understanding the longer-term needs in our community including how we can offer classes with some regularity through the senior center. This is the second year of offering the class and the content is being refined based on the needs of participants and their feedback. COA also provided air purifiers to the school nurse at Ashland School District so that the most vulnerable students could also receive air purifiers. New air purifiers were purchased and distributed to adult seniors, of which, 15 had pre-existing conditions and lower incomes and, another set of air purifiers reached medically vulnerable students.
Receiving this funding also allowed for more collaboration with the Ashland Senior Center, Ashland School District, and partners who participate in Smokewise Ashland, as well as organizations across the west who are working to address smoke in their own communities. A new process for identifying vulnerable people was developed with the Ashland Senior Center and Smokewise Ashland will continuously keep a waiting list so that resources can be quickly delivered to program participants when more air purifiers are purchased.”
Carbon County Montana used FAC Net funds to purchase materials for air filtration systems in seven public facilities to create smoke refuges during smoke events. Program manager Tom Kohley shares that “We believe the air purification systems that will be placed in the selected public facilities will have a positive impact on elderly and Access and Functional Needs populations who can visit these facilities during times of poor air quality.”
COPE Northern Sonoma County got busy with a wide variety of activities aimed at helping their community stay healthy and access clean air during smoke events, building on an existing program and continuing collaboration with seven community partners. As Board Chair and manager of this program Priscilla Abercrombie tells it: “We made connections with vulnerable community members, built a partnership with our county Council on Aging and a local low-income housing facility, provided air purifiers and education for low income seniors, and had a table at a large Climate Fest event where we engaged community members in conversation about being smoke ready and emergency preparedness. We were able to purchase air purifiers and design a branded infographic, and print smoke ready educational materials in English and Spanish. There was genuine interest from the seniors not only in smoke info but about our COPE program and getting more prepared [for wildfire].“
Yolo County Resource Conservation District and Yolo County Fire Safe Council worked with five partners and took a mixed approach to serving both private residences and public spaces, serving a number of homes and one community center. Program manager Kate Reza explains how the program focused on serving the migrant community: “[Several] families from the Madison Migrant Center were provided with air purifiers for their homes. The Madison Migrant Center is located near the Capay Valley, which was severely impacted by the LNU fire of 2020. Additionally, this area experiences heavy smoke conditions with relative frequency due to annual wildfires to the west and north. Families will now have access to clean air as the fire season approaches. Additionally, we provided an air purifier for the community room at the Winters Senior Apartments, which provides subsidized housing for seniors and people with disabilities.”
Reza found that partnerships were especially key to the success of the program: “Catholic Charities of Yolo and Solano (CCYS) has been developing relationships with the residents of the three migrant centers in Yolo and Solano Counties. They were responsible for engagement and distribution of the devices. LISTOS California is a partner of CCYS that provides resources for disaster preparation and emergency preparedness. They covered the salaries of CCYS staff for the project. Finally, a Fire Safe Council member affiliated with In Home Supportive Services in Yolo County distributed the final air purifier to the community room in the Winters Senior Apartments.”
Climate Smart Missoula built on and expanded an existing program to serve more people and help them access clean air during smoke season, serving 50 additional households with FAC Net funding. Program manager Amy Cilimburg described the impact of this program in her community:
“By targeting direct work with local health providers and social service organizations, we have strengthened ties and built strong relationships. This is allowing information to directly reach low-income community members who have pre-existing conditions. These folks are now hearing about the health implications of wildfire smoke and understand steps to stay safe, and will do so as the summer progresses. By providing HEPA air purifiers to these groups who service the more rural parts of our county, we are ultimately helping these members have clean indoor air. We are also making it easier for folks to find replacement filters to keep their HEPA units running effectively.
We hoped this project would have multiple benefits, including improved health outcomes for community members who may not otherwise have access to cleaner indoor air, stronger connections with our community partners and rural areas, and a more integrated health system that connects patients with appropriate clean air interventions. We believe this project has helped us begin to achieve such benefits. Clearly, it’s ongoing and more work and support will be needed, over the months and years to come.
The funding encouraged us to reach out to new partners and purchase and bring HEPA filters directly to these partners so they can help vulnerable community members (whom we would not have reached otherwise). It allowed for staff and intern time to prioritize these efforts, and we would not have been able to do this without the funding.”
Eagle County, Colorado piloted a new program, developing and distributing clean air educational materials and 36 filters throughout the community. Program manager Kirk Weems discussed the importance of partners in the program’s success:
“Eagle County Wildfire Collaborative / Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative – The Eagle County Wildfire Collaborative and the Roaring Fork Valley Wildfire Collaborative consist of fire districts and departments, federal land management agencies, municipalities, water councils, and other stakeholders in the wildfire industry interested in making an impact on wildfire risk. Partnering with this group allowed us to reach a broad audience as we shared all messaging with all stakeholders about the Community Clean Air Program Support grant, which they were able to project on their own channels.
Eagle County Government Communications – By working with the communications team, we successfully translated all messaging into Spanish, allowing our program information to reach a broader demographic. Information about the program was also shared to our Spanish newsletter. ecemergency.org is the Eagle County Public Emergency information website and has a page dedicated to being Smoke Ready. We linked the application for an air purifier to the Smoke Ready page and distributed 18 of our 36 air purifiers through this channel. EC Emergency are active on social media and 18 units were requested after posting about our Clean Air Program through social media channels.
Eagle County Public Health and Environment – Through this partnership, we were able to reach our healthy aging populations with program information. The program was very well received with our older adult community and the remaining 18 filters were distributed through this channel. This partnership (through public health) also provided a location to store the filters prior to distribution in the community.
Overall, it was a successful outreach program that was well received by those who participated. We learned a lot about available resources and how to broadcast those into the community.”
The City of Flagstaff Sustainability Office was able to build on past successes in clean air programming, distributing filters to vulnerable households. Program manager Jacob Raatz describes the program’s impact: “In total, 59% of applicants had a total household income below $60,000. Additionally, 60% of all applicants had an existing health condition or experience adverse health impacts from smoke. The idea that so many individuals now have the benefit of cleaner air in their homes is a comforting one. Alongside the direct distribution of HEPA filter [air purifiers], we also included helpful educational materials to give recipients more power to make decisions about their health when smoke from wildfires and prescribed burns is present.”
Partnership was key for Raatz’s success, and deepened relationships that will continue to serve the community in projects to come: “Our primary partner for this project was the Flagstaff Fire Department. Neil Chapman (Forest Health Supervisor) was critical in helping us with outreach and keeping us informed about smoke impacts of upcoming events. We are very [excited] to see this partnership continue to grow and already have new ideas on how we might be able to collaborate in the future for the benefit of the public.”
Plumas County FSC began the steps of piloting a new program to help residents in their service area access clean air by purchasing air filters and beginning the long process of developing deep partnerships throughout their community. Through building these partnerships, they hope to identify recipients most in need of assistance and distribute filters soon.
Learning Group and Beyond
FAC Net was pleased to facilitate such a diverse array of projects throughout the country to help spread the word on staying healthy during smoke events and the filters to help vulnerable households and create clean air spaces in community centers.
This program’s impact was multiplied far beyond simple funding as FAC Net gathered awardees into a learning group three times throughout the funding cycle. This group gathered to hear from established programs, gather ideas, troubleshoot execution, and synthesize learning for future iterations of the program. The group was often in touch throughout the funding cycle (and beyond) in an online community that helped them seek each other out for more resources and to celebrate successes along the way. Fortunately, this was not the end of the Community Clean Air Program Supporting program – we are developing funding mechanisms for another round of projects like this in 2024 – stay tuned!