Carlene Anders, the Mayor of Pateros, and Kelly Edwards, the Interim Director of Room One, on health and climate.
In the past six years, there has been an increase in the intensity of wildfires in Methow Valley, which first became most apparent with the Carlton fire complex in 2014, said Carlene Anders, the Mayor of Pateros.
“We're attacking things in a much different way. We’ve done a huge amount of networking and advocacy in the past 6 years,” said Anders. Wildfires are being looked at through many organizations, all of whom bring their own outlook and lens.
The health-focused group working on the Methow Valley Climate Action Plan is a combination of clinicians, first responders, and Room One--the social services agency in Methow Valley-- said Kelly Edwards, the Interim Director of Room One.
(Above: Kelly Edwards, Associate Director of Room One)
“As far as climate impacts for us, we decided fire was the main worry,” said Edwards.
The impact of the past four wildfires has caused a ripple effect through the community. People are still uneasy, Anders said.
Room One works with people who are isolated and helps them deal with feelings of hopelessness. “When the fires and smoke got especially bad, pediatricians were telling parents to take their kids out of the valley, and a lot of working-class families couldn't leave their jobs, and they didn't have a place to go either. For more low-income families, there wasn't money for gas, and they also didn't have a place to go, so people worried they were not able to do what was best for their kids and felt trapped,” said Edwards.
“It may seem like people do okay, but some do okay, and some don't,” said Anders. “Mental health has to be looked at in the long term.”
People can become more prepared for wildfire events by having evacuation plans, said Anders.
It’s important to know how you're going to get out [of the valley]. Some people have issues with their car because people don't even think about their cars getting choked up with the smoke,” said Anders.
“Most people were evacuated, so having that experience of having all of your belongings packed in your car and being ready to leave at a moment's notice takes a toll,” said Edwards.
(Above: Photo of the 2018 Crescent Fire up Twisp River)
The smoke makes people tense and stressed; it impacts the sun and the weather. Smoke is stressful; it doesn't help people's mentalities, said Anders. It physically is really hard on those with asthma or any other situations.
The health impacts of fire come in two categories. The first one is respiratory distress, meaning people who struggle with asthma or other respiratory conditions are at risk with more exposure, said Edwards. Those are easiest to manage by getting people air filters or to spaces with cleaner air. “I think the bigger issue is the mental health impacts from persistent fire risk and persistent smoke; four out of the past five summers have had smoke and fires, and that gets to people,” said Edwards.
(Above: Dr. Liz Walker, Director of Clean Air Methow, holds N95 masks during the 2018 fire season)
A couple of stations gave away N95 masks at Room One and Aero Methow Rescue Service. Masks for COVID-19 are not enough to protect against smoke, said Edwards.
Another important thing is working with the Spanish-speaking community and other underrepresented communities in Methow Valley to spread awareness about available resources. Many people did not realize there were ways to have access to resources like free masks, said Edwards.
The smoke also affects people’s ventilation systems and vehicles. According to Anders, if they have an air conditioning unit that draws air in from outside, debris is sucked into the filter and potentially into the house.
Room One supports many people on disability, on-at-home oxygen, and who are housebound. “We had a donor who gave us 50 air filters to give the folks that were most vulnerable from a respiratory perspective or had vulnerable kids. We did a survey a year later about how those worked, and everybody thought they made a difference in their physical and mental health,” said Edwards.
Including air filters would be essential in the plan as very few people have air conditioning, and most people's houses are not sealed well, and ash gets through the cracks. “There's no place to go to get clean air, so indoor air filters made a huge difference so people could get a break,” said Edwards.
There's the mental health impact of the lived experience of a stress response trigger when it gets hotter, and dryer and people wonder when the next fire is going to come. “Last summer, we spent the whole summer waiting and watching and wondering when the next fire was going to show up. It's called hyper-vigilance that much of a chronic stress load can take a toll on physical and mental health,” said Edwards.
People from other areas or those who moved in recently need to understand how much the fires have impacted Methow Valley communities. According to Anders, lots of people moved away after the major fire events, and lots of newcomers moved in that have not lived through a fire before.
“We have a feeling we can live with certain things, and people who couldn't live with [the fires] left—a lot of people left,” said Anders.
According to Anders, survey results from 2015 showed that three years later, 305 of the surveyed clients said they had increased health risks after the fires.
“Last summer really saved us in that we didn't have a smoke event, but before that, it was not uncommon to hear people wondering if they could live here in the long run,” said Edwards.
There is a need for a way that people within the community could get help regulating their fire-related stress in the long-term, said Edwards.
“These fires have impacted everyone who lives here, my land burned completely, other people lost their homes, everybody lost something or had a neighbor who lost something or knew someone who lost something,” said Edwards.
The Okanagan County Council did a road study to see how roads should be maintained and how many people used each road as a way to begin forming an evacuation plan. Individuals need an evacuation plan, as well.
“There's a cost to preparing for things that might not happen, people don't spend their money on something that might happen, and we have to decide individually and as a community if it's worth the investment,” said Anders.
In those earlier years, people who could afford to leave left. “If you're a farmworker, a construction worker, a fishery worker, you work outside, and you get paid by the hour, so if you're not working, you're not getting paid,” said Edwards.
Having worker rest areas with designated areas that would provide public clean air spaces, so if farmworkers and construction workers have a place to go with fresh air, is one suggestion from the health sector.
“We're not sure how effective this will be in the long term because if people are working outside all day and they step into an air filtered room for an hour and getting some clean air in the middle, it might help,” said Edwards.
These are all community issues and having a task force like this gets people's input and shares that process helps with buy-in as the plan moves forward. It's not about climate alone. It's about adapting to the environment and becoming more resilient, said Anders.