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Reporting from McCall – here are some of the stories you wanted told.

How To Protect Against Smoke And Prepare For Wildfire Evacuations In Idaho

Western Wildfires
Nathan Howard/AP
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FR171771 AP
Smoke fills the air near the Bootleg Fire, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, near Sprague River, Ore. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Wildfire smoke has settled into valleys across the West, including in Idaho. As air quality in Idaho has toggled from moderate to unhealthy, people are coping with smoke that’s arrived early — smoke that may stick around until the fall. Health officials warn that prolonged exposure to this kind of smoke is dangerous.

"I think we need to prepare as a community for what that means – to be inundated with smoke for months at a time. And if you're going to live in Idaho for most of your life, what does it mean to have 50 years of exposure?"
Luke Montrose, Boise State University

And the wildfires that are causing that smoke? They’ve already forced the evacuation of some towns in the Gem State and could threaten more. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that you may need to leave your home at a moment’s notice. But as climate change exacerbates extreme conditions, experts say it’s best to have an evacuation plan.

Idaho Matters asks two experts for guidance on how to cope with the smoke and wildfire risk. Brittany Brand and Luke Montrose are both professors at Boise State University, home to the Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute.

Western Wildfires
Nathan Howard/AP
Dee McCarley hugs her cat Bunny, whom she took with her while evacuating from the Bootleg Fire, while at a Red Cross center on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Klamath Falls, Ore. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Transcript of interview below:

Gemma Gaudette: You're listening to Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. Wildfire smoke has settled into valleys all across the west, including here in Idaho, just look outside. As air quality here in our state has toggled from moderate to unhealthy, people are coping with smoke that's arrived early this year. But get this, it may stick around until the fall. And health officials are warning that prolonged exposure to this kind of smoke, it's dangerous. The wildfires that are causing that smoke, well, they've already forced the evacuation of some towns here in Idaho and they could threaten more. Now, it's hard to wrap your head around the idea that you may need to actually leave your home at a moment's notice. But as climate change exacerbates extreme weather conditions, experts say it is best to have an evacuation plan. So today we're talking with two people with tips to help us protect ourselves from smoke and fire. Brittany Brand and Luke Montrose are both professors at Boise State University, home to Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute. We want to thank you for joining us today.

Brittany Brand: Great to be here.

Luke Montrose: Good to be here, Gemma.

Gemma Gaudette: So Brittany, first off, when we talk about wildfire, smoke and air quality, I mean, we hear these terms moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, et cetera. Can you quickly run through the different categories in the air quality index and what they mean?

Brittany Brand: Sure. Actually, I'm going to have Luke answer that, because that's his expertise.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, perfect. Absolutely.

Luke Montrose: When you see or hear local public health officials talking about the air quality index, what they're doing is they're taking a value of particulate matter and they're converting that into a scale that they've deemed palatable for the public, and there's colors that go along with that. So essentially what we're talking about is a zero to 30 particulate matter level being an AQI level of zero to 50. So that's green. That's good. That's what we hope to see most often. But as you move from green to a light orange and then a dark orange, you get into unhealthy for sensitive groups. And this is where you're getting above the benchmark level that the EPA has set for that particulate matter level in the outdoor environment. So that level, that color of the AQI index is really kind of keen on that level of air pollution. And as you get above 35 micrograms per meter cubed of particulate matter, that benchmark with the EPA is set, you get more into the unhealthy for general population level, and that's where you start to see the red. And as we've seen over the last week or two, we can go above red into purple and then dark purple. And that's bad for everyone. You can just assume that you are in the bad for you group once it gets into the purple area.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Luke, I mean, I know you study wildfire smoke. So what is it about the smoke that makes it dangerous? And I would assume that I mean, it's not good for anybody.

Luke Montrose: That's accurate. So that's a great segue, actually, so we are just talking about this particulate level, that 2.5 that the EPA uses as this cut off for size fraction. That size fraction's the the type of particulate, the size of particulate that can get past your nose through your upper respiratory tract and all the way deep down into the deepest parts of your lung, in what we call the alveolar space, which is where air crosses across the lungs into the blood. This is important business and smoke being there, the particles being there is really bad for our ability to breathe normally. And so you hit the nail on the head Gemma. This is bad for everyone. But we have these levels, these rankings of colors of the AQI to help us understand when certain people should really start to look out for these levels of air pollution and take mitigating action. So, doing something to protect yourself.

Gemma Gaudette: And then Luke, let's talk about how we have this smoke, right, and then we've had this excessive heat for, frankly, the last month so, what happens when you combine those two things?

Luke Montrose: So this, the science behind this isn't completely elucidated at this point, but it observationally we know that when it's when the air pollution is bad or when it's really hot, this is bad for you. When you combine the two, you can get a synergistic effect of these two negative health exposures. And = one way that this could happen is when it's hot. Our bodies are working harder to deal with that heat. Our bodies have to work hard then to expel all of the nasty particles that are in our lungs. Along with being hot, you might also start to respirate more frequently. That frequent respiration brings in more particulate into your lung and so goes the cycle. So depending on the duration of the heat event might have a difference of effect onthe impact of breathing in these particles. And oftentimes, as we've seen over the last couple of weeks, these can be sustained events where we're getting both smoke and high heat levels for days or weeks at a time.

Gemma Gaudette: And Brittany, we should note that a lot of the smoke that we're experiencing here in Idaho, in particular in the Boise metro area, is actually coming from the Bootleg Fire in south central Oregon. So why is that?

Brittany Brand: Right. So we are getting fire from Oregon. We are also getting fire, fire, smoke from California and Nevada right now. And it's really just being blown in. These really tiny particles get caught up in a jet stream in the wind and they just get blown up over Idaho very easily. We're also getting support from Idaho as well.

Gemma Gaudette: Yeah, and so what do we know about why smoke lingers for so long in places like the Treasure Valley and in fact, what meteorologists are warning us that we may this may last until the fall, like September- October-ish.

Brittany Brand: Right, so we are in a valley for one, and so because of the way the air travels, typically from the west to the east, we're going to continually being bombarded by smoke. As long as there are wildfires upwind, we will get the wildfire smoke here. And given the extent of wildfires, the longer wildfire seasons that we're experiencing as an effect of climate change, we can expect to have longer smoke seasons as well.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Luke, we know in Idaho, I mean, right, this is a big outdoor recreation time of the year, but it's putting a damper on certain things for sure. But if folks are still thinking about, you know, maybe camping trips, maybe doing other things outdoors, what should they be thinking about when it comes to this smoke?

Luke Montrose: It's, for me and for everyone else, I think it's unfortunate that we've had to stay indoors and stay away from our friends and family for so long. And just as we get a reprieve with, you know, increased usage of vaccines and we're all able to go out again, now, we're being told to stay inside. And unfortunately, that's really the best advice that I can provide, is reducing your outdoor, reducing your time outdoors. And if you have to be outdoors, reducing your activity and this gets back to that respiration rate, hopefully the less that you take into your lungs, the healthier you'll be able to stay. And I would point out that, you know, it's great that we have these outdoor opportunities, but that's really a choice that we all, you know, can make whether to go camping or not go camping. It's really the workers who have to be outside that I feel for and that I think we need to do more as researchers to understand what the risks are for them. So I'm thinking about the wildland firefighters, but also the people that we don't necessarily think about, like agricultural workers or construction workers. And so I think that they should at least be aware of their risk and if possible, take precaution.

Gemma Gaudette: And how can we, is there a resource or a tool if people want to monitor air quality so they know what kinds of decisions to make and maybe, Luke, you can answer that.

Luke Montrose: Yeah. So one of the things that I would point out is that the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has a grouping of really great monitors that they've spent a lot of money to purchase, maintain, and those can be found on their on their website or at the Idaho Smoke blog. In addition to these really expensive, really great monitors, there's also a whole suite of new low cost monitors that have been added to this to make this network more robust. One website that I would point the listeners to would be the Purple Air Network Map. Purple Air, a company originally out of Salt Lake City, I believe. And essentially they made citizen scientist science very popular by selling these low cost monitors that you can set up inside or outside of your home. So you can purchase these and you can become part of that network. Even if you don't have one, it's free to access. In addition to the Idaho Smoke blog, you can also go to the Air Now website and you can also go to the EPA smoke ready tool box. All of these are really great resources for people to learn more about the air quality in their area and then some tips and tricks about what to do about the poor air quality when it does occur.

Gemma Gaudette: And before we take a break, you know, Brittany, we're used to wearing masks now to protect against covid. Would wearing a mask potentially help when it comes to all this wildfire smoke?

Brittany Brand: Unfortunately, no, the particles are too small, so they can easily pass through and around the mask. So I think to have a mask that properly would prevent inhaling the wildfire smoke, you would have to have a respirator or a specially fitted mask.

Gemma Gaudette: Ok, well, that's good to know. After a short break, we're going to ask our experts about tips to cope with the smoke of the wildfire, including what you should look for in an air purifier and what you should pack in your go bag in case you need to evacuate. More Idaho Matters next.

Gemma Gaudette: Continuing our conversation about how to cope with smoke and wildfires with professors Britney Brand and Luke Montrose of Boise State University's Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute. So, Luke, let's talk about something people can do in some way to improve the air that they're breathing during fire season. And maybe this is by getting or upgrading an air to your air purifier. So if someone is looking to buy an air purifier, what should they be looking for?

Luke Montrose: Yeah, so great question, Gemma The first thing I would do before I got to the air purification system is make sure that if you have control of your systems, if you're a homeowner or a renter and you have a unit that you have access to, have your HVAC technician come out, service that unit and ask them what the highest MERV rating (MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting value). What's the highest MERV rating that they would recommend putting into that? That filter is already part of your house. So before you go out and buy one, make sure that that's in working order. The next thing I would do is if you are considering an air purification unit, ask yourself a couple of questions. First of all, where do you want to put this in your house? Because that's going to help you identify what the square footage or the amount of space that that air purifier needs to purify. So if you want to put that in your living room, if you spend a lot of time in your living room, maybe in your bedroom, those are two common places. Figure out the square footage. Make sure that the monitor matches the square footage. The next thing that you're going to want to look for is I really would recommend getting an air purification system with a HEPA filter.

Luke Montrose: So that's the high efficiency particulate air filter. And that actually has a MERV rating of between 19 and 20 depending on the filter. And so this is above the grade of what we think of as like hospital-grade air. So you would really be helping your air quality out in your house for that. At least one other thing that I would think about would be: What do you need that air purifier for? In this case, the context of our conversation is wildfire smoke. So make sure that on that unit, the box on the information that you're reading about that unit when you're doing your research, make sure that it matches the particle size that that we're talking about. So this whole talk we've been discussing PM 2.5 So you want to make sure that monitor that purifier actually takes PM 2.5 out of the air. And as long as it has a HEPA filter, it should. But, you know, make sure that you're doing your research. Make sure that you're getting a well reviewed air purifier and adding essentially any air purifier with the HEPA air filter to your house will only improve the quality of your air.

Gemma Gaudette: So, look, I mean, these things can be super expensive. I mean, we're talking hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Is there a cheaper way to protect yourself from smoke getting into your home if you just can't afford to go out and buy an air purifier?

Luke Montrose: Yes. So this is a commonly asked question. And there's a couple of caveats to my answer. But first I'll just say, yes, there absolutely is a cheap alternative and it essentially is going to your local big box, like Home Depot or Lowe's, getting yourself a box fan or if you already have a box fan, measure the outside dimensions of that and go and pick up a HEPA air filter that fits that box fan. Come home, seal that filter up to the back side of the fan, turn it on. And you just made yourself an at home standalone electrification unit for less than twenty five bucks. Now here are the caveats and you can find more information about this by searching DIY air purification unit on YouTube or the New York Times, I think two years ago had a really great article about this. Essentially, the fan is not made to have a filter on it. So you're making the fan work a little bit harder so you could potentially shorten the lifespan of that fan. There also may be some some issues with that could be a potential for fire, because you've added that. So maybe not run this when you're not at home, you're monitoring that. But otherwise, this would be a great alternative for an emergency situation where you didn't have an air purification system and you're limiting it to one room of your house. Studies have shown that will reduce the particulate in the air anywhere from 80 to 90 percent, which is less than a than a commercial air purification unit, but certainly better than nothing.

Gemma Gaudette: So, Brittany, can we talk about evacuations, because are there certain communities here in Idaho that need to have an evacuation plan or should all of us be prepared for this possibility?

Brittany Brand: Thank you, yes, all of us in Idaho should be prepared for an evacuation. Essentially, we in Idaho live in a fire prone landscape. Fire is part of our lives and so we all have to recognize that and recognize our role in preventing wildfires from spreading by doing what we can around our homes. Now, if there is an evacuation call, there is no time to think about: What am I going to pack? Who am I going to bring? What route am I going to take? You have to be out of your house in less than 20 minutes, which means it's vitally important to get ready before an evacuation is ever called. And so there's a lot that you can do, like making a family plan; knowing your evacuation routes; making sure that you have more than one evacuation route; know where you're going to go; know where you're going to meet if you're separated; and also, make sure you already have all of your important documents, anything that you have a strong sentimental attachment to, like photographs, together in one place so that you can grab them and go at a moment's notice. The longer you wait, the more you delay, the more chance that you're not going to get out.

Gemma Gaudette: And, Brittany, what state and local resources are there for alerting people about a wildfire that people should be paying attention to?

Brittany Brand: So if you live in ADA County, you can sign up for Code Red. There's also some state alert systems. If you look into the Idaho Office of Emergency Management, you can find some there. There's reverse 911 calls. A lot of times, though, you might just be paying attention to what's going on around you. There might not be an evacuation, but you might see embers coming through your neighborhood. You might notice that your neighbors are evacuating. So in some cases, you may be asked to evacuate. And in other cases, if you're feeling unsafe, you should go ahead and evacuate right away. Additional resources: We have some resources on the Boise State Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute website. And I would always, if you have questions, feel free to reach out to us or your local county emergency manager.

Gemma Gaudette: You know, Brittany, other parts of the country have events that they have to prepare for every year. I mean, let's take the coastal states, right, with hurricane season. But here in the Mountain West, I mean, we don't necessarily have this evacuation preparedness as part of our culture. You know, and I lived in Florida for two years during very active hurricane seasons. You had a plan. I mean, you just you learn to have a plan. Should we be thinking of wildfires like folks who live in the coastal areas, on the East Coast in particular, think about hurricanes? I mean, wildfires are an annual event. So do we need to start thinking differently?

Brittany Brand: Absolutely, the homeowners, first of all, homeowners are our first line of defense against wildfire disasters. Wildfires are natural. They're part of our ecosystem. But when they occur nearby urban centers or even rural communities, that's when they have the potential to become disasters. So there's a lot that we can do around our own homes, like within 30 feet of the home, remove any leafy debris, any flashy fuels that can catch on fire; woodpiles should be 30 feet or more away from the house; and flammable vegetation should be replaced with with wise vegetation to reduce flammability. What people don't realize is that most homes catch on fire not because the fire front is moving through, but because embers are blowing in from more than a mile away and can stay hot enough to catch flammable things around your house on fire that will then catch your house on fire. So there's a lot that we need to do annually, just like in hurricane season and around Florida, you've got your hurricane shutters, you've got your evacuation plan. We need to have the same thing in place here in Idaho where we're preparing our homes, we're keeping our roofs clean, and we're doing everything we can to prepare for wildfire. And this will allow wildfire responders to not have to respond to our homes, but they can actually respond to the fire front faster and put the fire out faster. So we all really have a role to play in this.

Gemma Gaudette: And Brittany, I would assume that, you know, this idea of fire wise is something that all of us should be doing, whether we live in an urban area or we live in a more rural area, because I think in the past we've thought of this is only being well, if you live, you know, outside of the city limits.

Brittany Brand: Absolutely, but because of that ember intrusion, because of these hot embers blowing in from more than a mile away, we could have ember intrusion several streets into a city where you're not right up against that flammable vegetation that we see up in the foothills, for example. Our homes can catch on fire from a fire that's more than a mile away from our homes.

Gemma Gaudette: Luke, before we go, you know, here in Idaho, August used to be like the really, you know, big wildfire season. We knew that that's when it was going to be active. We knew that smoke would come in. Well, this year and the past couple of years, we've seen the wildfire seasons happening earlier. Smoke is coming in earlier. With climate change in mind, are you expecting a future where smoke is to be expected earlier and frankly, be around longer?

Luke Montrose: Yeah, that's a great point, Gemma. National Interagency Fire Center is at their highest level of preparedness a month earlier than normal. And so, yes, I do think that the landscape has changed to the point where now we've gone from a two to three month fire season to a five to seven month fire season, depending on what part of the west you're in. And as we talked about at the top of this presentation, the smoke is not just coming here from Idaho, it's coming from our Western neighbors. So even if we even if our fire season is over, our smoke season might not be. I think we need to prepare as a community for what that means to be inundated with smoke for months at a time. And as researchers, we need to start understanding what it means to have this annual sort of episodic exposure where a couple of months, a year, at least every year. And if you're going to live in Idaho for most of your life, what does it mean to have 50 years of exposure? These are just questions that we don't have answers yet, but we should get on top of this right away.

Gemma Gaudette: Well, I want to thank both of you for your time and for your expertise in this. We've been talking with Boise State University professors, Brittany Brand and Luke Montrose. They are both part of the Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute at Boise State. We will, of course, link to their resources for dealing with smoke and wildfires on our website. Thank you both for your time.

Frankie Barnhill is the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast. She's always interested in hearing surprising and enlightening stories about life in the West. Have an idea for Idaho Matters? Drop her a line!