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Nez Perce Tribe secures EPA grant to shield community buildings from wildfire smoke

A fire burns in a forest full of green trees with white and grey smoking filling the top left of the photo.
Flick/NPS Climate Change Response

Last August, a wildfire ignited on a grassy hillside in the North Central Idaho city of Orofino, just minutes uphill from the Clearwater Memorial Public Library. Library Director Jessica Long said she couldn’t see the flames but watched the smoke.

“It was just like a furnace,” she said. “It was black, and we knew that it was close and that it was really, really bad.” 

The Clearwater County Sheriff’s office ordered a neighborhood to evacuate. The blaze burned six homes. Some families sheltered in an old gym, and Long said they crossed the street to the library for most of the day to read books and play with toys. She turned on a DIY air cleaner – a filter taped to a box fan – to purify the air inside.

“Having a place that has clean air and is safe for them and their kids, I think that was important,” Long said.

The air in the library was better than it was outside, but every time the front door opened, the smoke billowed in. Luckily, rain began to fall, which helped firefighters suppress the fire.

Soon, the library will undergo upgrades to become more of a refuge during wildfire season.

The Nez Perce Tribe was recently awarded a $1.3 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better protect community buildings from smoke. With the money, it plans on deploying portable air filters, conducting indoor and outdoor air monitoring and upgrading HVAC systems at three community centers, four youth centers and nine public libraries on the Nez Perce Reservation, including Clearwater Memorial.

The Nez Perce Tribe was one of nine entities in the West awarded these wildfire smoke preparedness grants from the EPA, totaling $10.67 million. Other recipients include an affordable housing non-profit in South Los Angeles that will strengthen wildfire smoke preparedness in a community hub that includes several restaurants, shops and organizations, and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which will install air cleaners, filters and monitors at public schools and preschools in the state.

The agency received more than 30 applications from nonprofits, Tribal governments, states and school districts for the new grant program.

“Public awareness is higher than ever, especially after the smoke event last summer that affected the East Coast,” said Alison Savage, a biologist in the EPA’s office of radiation and indoor air.

New data shows people living in Western states, in particular, can expect more days with unhealthy air by mid-century. More wildfire smoke, due in part to climate change, is the main culprit. The tiny particles released from smoke, known as PM2.5, can lodge deep into the lungs, making it difficult to breathe and increasing the risk of serious health effects like asthma attacks and heart failure.

Yet, there’s growing recognition that the particles can also infiltrate building envelopes, entering indoor spaces where we spend about 90% of our time.

“We know that a lot of buildings are not really functioning in an ideal level going into smoke events,” said Savage. “That can result in more smoky air coming into the building.”

Savage said local stakeholders have found making changes to help buildings keep out smoke, such as patching up spots that leak air and updating heating and cooling systems to handle higher- level filtration, have been challenging to fund.

Despite the EPA’s role in regulating air quality according to the Clean Air Act, the agency lacks statutory authority to regulate indoor air. According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, this has meant the responsibility to improve indoor air quality has been fragmented. As a result, the level of pollutants can vary widely from building to building.

Pi-nee-waus community center on the Nez Perce Reservation
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
The Pi-nee-waus Community Center in Lapwai is one of the buildings that the Nez Perce Tribe wants to make upgrades in to help it better protect people from wildfire smoke indoors.

Some communities have responded by creating “clean air shelters” for people who are displaced by a wildfire or whose homes do not adequately keep out smoke. However, some research indicates that people who need the shelters most don’t always go to them.

The Nez Perce Tribe said that’s why it’s targeting places like libraries, community centers and youth centers.

“These are places the community goes anyway,” said Julie Simpson, who coordinates the air quality program.

The Pi-Nee-Waus Community Center in Lapwai is one space slated for upgrades under the grant. In nimipuutímt, the Nez Perce language, its name means “a place to gather.”

“The community center is basically the home, the hub, of our Tribe,” said Aqua Greene, the center’s coordinator.

On any given day there, there are after-school programs, basketball tournaments, cultural gatherings and funerals. It also serves as a shelter space during extreme cold events and wildfires.

During a wildfire, Greene said, smoke descends into the valley. 

“We get hit pretty hard,” she said. As the community center is an older building, its susceptible to letting some smoke in.

The Nez Perce Tribe said this new grant funding from the EPA will help it build upon its previous efforts to protect the community from wildfire smoke, including a state-funded program last summer to distribute portable air filters to elders and families that had children with asthma. After all, said Johna Boulafentis, an environmental specialist for the air quality program, the improvements needed in community buildings to keep smoke out are also needed in our homes.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2024 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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