Feb. 2023 Science Corner | Learning to live with smoke: Characterizing wildfire and prescribed fire smoke risk communication in the Okanogan River Airshed Emphasis Area and western Colville Reservation

A recent research collaboration between the University of Washington (UW), the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, and the Okanogan River Airshed Partnership explored risk perception and communication around health impacts of exposure to smoke from wildfires and prescribed fire.

Authors: Leah Wood, Savannah D’Evelyn, Nicole Errett, Ann Bostrom, Cody Desautel, Ernesto Alvarado, Kris Ray, June Spector, & Juliette Randazza

Interview and story by: Signe Stroming, Senior Project Associate

Photo credit: USFS

It is late February, and as you read this, most forests in the American West are blanketed in snow or moisture-laden in the wake of winter rains. Wildfire risk is low, and the skies are likely clear of smoke.

But smoke season will come again soon enough.

For many of us, concern about the health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure dissipates soon after the smoke does. How does our perception of the health risks of wildfire smoke exposure influence our willingness to take protective actions, like weatherizing our homes or wearing a mask? How do communities burdened by wildfire smoke perceive prescribed burning, an important forest management tool that nevertheless produces some smoke as well? How can community leaders better convey the health risks of wildfire smoke exposure and prepare their communities for smoke season, even well before it starts?

A recent research collaboration between the University of Washington (UW), the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation, and the Okanogan River Airshed Partnership explored risk perception and communication around health impacts of exposure to smoke from wildfires and prescribed fire. They focused on a rural and tribal community in the Okanogan region that is often hit ‘first and worst’ by fires and smoke in Washington state.

“The goal was to understand how communities in fire and smoke-impacted regions think about smoke and talk about smoke, both from wildfires and from forest management practices like prescribed burning,” Savannah D’Evelyn, a postdoctoral fellow in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, said.

Leah Wood, a recent MPH and MPA graduate from the University of Washington, led the data collection and analysis for this project. In summer and fall 2021, D’Evelyn and Wood conducted 17 interviews and six focus group discussions with both tribal and non-tribal participants in the Okanogan River Airshed Emphasis Area (ORAEA) in northeastern Washington. The research team produced a report on their findings and an academic article on the role of trusted sources for smoke risk communication.

Unlike many communities that only experience wildfire smoke in the summer and fall months, communities living in the ORAEA can experience smoke pollution year-round, D’Evelyn explained, as the region is burdened by smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia as well as local prescribed burning and smoke from wood-burning stoves in the winter. Wood and D’Evelyn hope to be able to share lessons on smoke readiness from ORAEA with other rural and tribal communities impacted by smoke, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

The research team’s primary recommendation? Prepare for wildfire smoke season early and often, and leverage local channels of communication wherever possible.

“We clearly saw that a community-centered approach is what works best. When you’re talking to people in your community that you know are experiencing the same thing, that’s where you get the information that you trust the most,” D’Evelyn said. In the ORAEA, community-led groups like the Okanogan River Airshed Partnership provide factsheets and infographics and promote a Smoke-Ready Week each year in June.

The authors also found that local and tribal agencies are generally more trusted than state or federal government sources, but even within those agencies, certain individuals emerged as trusted smoke-readiness champions. “So many people said, ‘I go to this individual person to ask about smoke, and I trust his or her word,’ And so figuring out who those trusted sources are is incredibly important when doing any sort of messaging,” D’Evelyn said. “There are so many smoke-impacted communities that don’t have those people, so how do we find those people in a community that would be willing to act as the smoke readiness champion?”

And what should those smoke-readiness champions focus on communicating? D’Evelyn and Wood recommend communicating what is known about the long-term health impacts of exposure to wildfire smoke as well as the actions that people can take to mitigate smoke exposure.

While many community members could share personal stories of health impacts from wildfire smoke, such as difficulty breathing or eye irritation, they also expressed concern and uncertainty around the long-term health impacts, including mental health impacts, of breathing in wildfire smoke. Interviewees also noted that cultural attitudes of toughness and rural self-sufficiency, especially among non-tribal interviewees, might be a barrier to individuals taking protective action against smoke exposure.

The research team recommends providing better information on these long-term impacts of smoke exposure, noting that “while the health impacts of chronic or cumulative smoke exposure have yet to be well-characterized in the scientific literature, we have enough information on urban and traffic-related airborne pollutants that supports taking protective action.” The report authors also recommend emphasizing that “one’s health and the health of one’s community are central to wildfire resilience” and rural self-sufficiency.

In some focus groups, D’Evelyn and Wood reported a sense of resignation around the presence of smoke. “We would ask a question about what people did about smoke exposure, and a lot of answers would be, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’” D’Evelyn said. “There was definitely a kind of apathy almost to the exposure, because smoke is so present in the summer and in the fall now.” This presents a challenge of moving forward with interventions and solutions in a population that might not believe there is anything that can be done.

D’Evelyn and Wood recommend providing actionable information on protective actions to mitigate the health impacts of smoke exposure, including improving indoor air quality through home weatherization and indoor air filtration and otherwise reducing smoke exposure by reducing physical activity outdoors, wearing well-fitting N95 masks, or evacuating temporarily from smoky areas as needed.

However D’Evelyn and Wood also found that knowledge alone may not be enough. As always, systemic issues are at work: housing policy and lack of financial resources can limit people’s ability to take protective action to reduce smoke exposure. Most people reported that their primary response to smoke exposure is staying indoors. But, as Wood pointed out, staying indoors is “only about as effective as we are at cleaning our indoor air,” and access to clean indoor air is not a guarantee. “Folks talked about older housing stock being a major barrier to being able to stay safe from the smoke, having cracks in their homes, not having access to HEPA filters, or being reliant on box-fan filters,” Wood said. “Something that’s been really sticking with me is how this has become such an intersectional issue with things like housing policy and weatherization as well.”

And of course the most important intervention to reduce wildfire smoke is treating the problem at its source: managing our forestlands to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and intense smoke events. The community members that D’Evelyn and Wood spoke with identified fire prevention and forest management, including prescribed fire and thinning, as key strategies to reduce out-of-control wildfires and the heavy smoke that comes with them. Almost all interviewees viewed prescribed fires as relatively safe and beneficial, with tribal interviewees emphasizing the history of burning as a cultural practice as well. A few people noted that official communication around prescribed fires in the area has been too little and too late. This can exacerbate some of the trauma that some communities experience around wildfires and smoke season. Land managers need to better communicate the timing and duration of prescribed fires to mitigate anxiety caused by the smell of smoke in the air and enable communities to better prepare.

Blue Forest is working to accelerate the pace and scale of activities such as thinning and prescribed burning through conservation finance tools like our Forest Resilience Bond. We are working on developing a Forest Resilience Bond in central Washington to accelerate implementation of forest management work around communities in one of the 10 high risk firesheds selected as part of the USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy landscapes. This month, we also announced the launch of the California Wildfire Innovation Fund, a new financial strategy to support and invest in sustainable, community-based forest restoration economies in the state of California, unlocking more forest restoration, wood utilization, and wildfire risk reduction opportunities across the West. In partnership with the California Council on Science and Technology, we are further exploring the links between forest health, wildfire smoke, and public health. Our ultimate goal is to understand how improved public health outcomes can be leveraged to support wildfire risk reduction work.

Meanwhile, communities can and should think about preparing for wildfire smoke season. D’Evelyn and Wood hope their report can be a starting point for people to learn more about smoke readiness. As Wood says, “Our hope is that the responses to smoke and communication around smoke will not only be in emergency situations, but really a year round thing as we grow to continually live with more and more fire and smoke.”