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Nez Perce Tribe leads the way in protecting community from wildfire smoke indoors

A trailer full of air purifiers.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Kayden Williamson, an intern for the Nez Perce Tribe's air quality department, stands in front of a trailer full of air purifiers the Tribe will hand out to protect vulnerable members from wildfire smoke.

Loretta Spaulding’s eight-year-old son was having an asthma flare-up when she got an email that they were eligible to get a free portable air cleaner for their home. They live with Spaulding’s grandmother, who has asthma, too.

The notice found them because their household had been part of a research effort among several tribes in the Northwest to study asthma care and to identify various environmental triggers. Spaulding is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are 20% more likely to have asthma than white Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health.

As part of the study, community health department workers from Nimiipuu Health, The Nez Perce Tribal health care facility, told them which cleaning products to toss and to burn drier logs in the wood stove, their main source of heat.

“Just being more cautious and aware of what’s safe for both of them,” Spaulding said.

Spaulding’s son was diagnosed before he was one, so at this point, she knows when he needs his inhaler.

“He’s an active boy,” she said, “but he doesn’t really need it when he plays sports or anything. It’s just like the time of year, the seasons.”

In particular, wildfire smoke sets off coughing fits.

Recognizing the impact of wildfire smoke on families like Spaulding's, Johna Boulafentis, who works for the Tribe’s air quality program, organized air quality workshops for families with young children suffering from asthma and tribal elders.

The tiny particles in wildfire smoke, known as PM2.5, can travel deep into the lungs, and are particularly dangerous for those with asthma or people over the age of 65. Recent studies from the CDC showed ER visits for asthma-related illnesses spiked this summer in New York when smoke from Canadian wildfires cloaked the East Coast.

The Nez Perce Tribe's air quality program manages permits for burning agricultural fields and monitors particulates on the reservation. A nearby paper mill is another local source of emissions. But now, wildfire smoke is the main pollutant the reservation faces, Boulafentis said. It’s become a near-constant each summer.

“This is what we're going to continue to see with climate change, is increased and more frequent wildfires,” she said, “which, if you have fire, you have smoke.”

Air cleaner class

About 15 adults took their seats in a Nez Perce Tribal Housing Authority classroom on a Wednesday night.

“We're going to go over some things about indoor air, outdoor air,” Boulafentis said. She pointed to a graphic depicting that a piece of human hair is about thirty times wider than a PM2.5 particle.

She told the class that the smoke from wildfires doesn’t always stay outside; it follows us through the door. And, as the majority of people in the U.S. spend about 90% of time inside, that where most people are likely to breathe the smoke.

It’s why Boulafentis, who has an impressive capability of inciting laughter during a lesson on air filtration, is giving away free portable air cleaners.

“Say hello to the Winix D360,” she said. “This is the sweet baby.”

The portable cleaners stand about two-feet-tall and their HEPA filters catch more than 99% of smoke particles.

The Tribe ordered 242 of them using funds from an emergency preparedness grant from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. This is the first time the program has had a request to help mitigate air quality, IDHW said.

Johna Boulafentis holds up an air purifier during a lesson on air filtration.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio News
Johna Boulafentis shows Nez Perce tribal members the air purifier they'll be getting during an air quality workshop.

The Nez Perce Tribe has been working on indoor air since the 1990s — from addressing radon to particulate matter from wood stoves. By comparison, when Boulafentis started in the field about two decades ago, she observed most state and local air quality departments weren’t focused on indoor air.

“They would say, ‘We work on outdoor air, not indoor air,’" she said.

With COVID-19, that’s started to change, she said. As people accepted the virus was spread through aerosols, they started paying more attention to how our indoor spaces can affect our health. The market for portable air cleaners grew by about 50% in 2020.

Still, there’s lots of room for improvement, especially when it comes to wildfire smoke, said Mansel Nelson, who works for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University.

“The general advice to go indoors always makes me cringe,” he said. “I've seen enough data to know that, in many cases, indoor environments are almost as bad as outdoor and can even be worse, depending on what you're doing indoors.”

Boulafentis said the Nez Perce Tribe's experience working to make indoor environments healthy prepared it to deal with smoke inside, too.

"With our long background working on indoor air issues, we knew and observed that wildfire smoke would be getting indoors," she said.

In the classroom at the Tribal Housing Authority, she showed participants how to change out the filter’s cleaners. People came to the front, pushed the buttons on the machine, watched as it detected the air quality in the room and increased the fan speed accordingly. They talked about where they’d put the device in their house, such as in the bedroom where their child with asthma sleeps. After the session, attendees collected their air filters from a minivan parked outside.

Setting up a filter

The next day, Boulafentis visited the apartment of a tribal elder who attended the class, Florene Davis. At 91, she’s soft spoken but chatty. Davis mentors kids and college students in nimipuutímt, the Nez Perce language.

Boulafentis guided her through changing the settings from low to turbo.

“You’ll be like a young girl, air flying through your hair,” Boulafentis said, as the blowing air kicked up speed.

Two people look at an air purifier on the ground.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Johna Boulafentis with the Nez Perce Tribe's air quality program helps tribal elder Florene Davis set up her air purifier.

Davis said, earlier this summer, she was traveling to a doctor's appointment in Washington, where smoke was drifting down from British Columbia.

“We could feel it, noticed the air was a little more heavy,” she said.

Boulafentis showed her how to change the filter inside before leaving.

“That’s the main one to check?” Davis asked.

“Yeah, frequently,” Boulafentis said.

Leading the way

Erin McTigue said tribes like the Nez Perce are leading the way when it comes to protecting citizens from wildfire smoke. She is a smoke management coordinator and indoor air quality specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency, and said air quality programs developed by tribes are being replicated elsewhere. For example, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington developed preparedness tools to help communities be “smoke ready.”

“Some of these reservations are highly impacted by smoke, have lots of forested land that they're trying to manage, have a lot of vulnerable individuals,” McTigue said.

However, according to recent U.S. Government Accountability Office reports, stagnant EPA funding threatens the agency’s ability to adequately address wildfire smoke as a human health concern, and to support tribal air quality programs.

Nez Perce PM2.5
Daily PM2.5 readings in Nez Perce County. The EPA strengthened air quality standards in 2012, which may explain the increase in "moderate" air quality days in the fall and winter months since, Nez Perce Tribe Air Quality Program staff said.

Aaron Miles is the director of Natural Resources for the Nez Perce Tribe, which was forcibly removed off most of its homelands.

“Whether people like it or not, this is our home,” he said.

The air quality program falls under his department. He said protecting the tribe's well-being, including through ensuring clean air, is critical to the Tribe’s treaty rights, and is a mutual and ongoing commitment between the U.S. government and the Nez Perce Tribe.

“The tribal government does everything it can to protect our people,” he said, which is where programs like the air purifier giveaway come into play.

It’s been smoky a few times in Lapwai since the air purifier has been running in Davis’ living room. She said she’s noticed its button turn “red,” as it’s detected the poor air quality, and started running its fans more intensely.

Spaulding has had her air purifier for a few months. Now, with the air cleaner running by the chairs where her son and grandmother relax, she feels more comfortable knowing they’re all breathing cleaner air.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a misspelling of Boulafentis' name.

The reporting in this story was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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