Community partners came together to secure multiple sources of funding to improve monitoring, communication, and smoke mitigation in the Columbia River Gorge.
In the summer of 2020, many of us witnessed the worst air quality we had seen in our lives. Wildfires blazed up and down the west coast, with levels staying at “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” for days. Lauren Kraemer, Associate Professor of Practice with OSU Extension, got many questions from community partners about how best to protect the community, and she didn’t have much to offer aside from recommending wearing KN95 masks, if they had them.
“The big concern was especially for migrant and seasonal farmworkers who are out picking in the orchards, even though air quality was in the five or six hundreds,” says Lauren.
This prompted her to think hard about how better to support the Columbia River Gorge during smoke events. Even though the summer of 2020 was extreme, it was not the first instance of poor air quality due to wildfires: in 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire resulted in poor air quality for an even longer period of time. And in our region, smoke events like prescribed burns and seasonal agricultural burning can impact the community year round.
Through conversations and coordinated planning between Lauren and her colleagues at OSU Extension, as well as between The Next Door Inc., Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District, the Hood River Forest Collaborative, and Paul Lindberg, Collective Impact Health Specialist, the Columbia River Gorge has managed to secure over $200,000 in grant funding to improve the community’s response to smoke events. The funding targets three main themes: monitoring, communication, and mitigation.
The Columbia Gorge region currently has very few active smoke monitors: one is located at Westside Fire Hall Hood River, and one at St. Mary’s School The Dalles. This is insufficient because of the many microclimates and geographic and topographic diversity in the region.
In response to this issue, the Healthy Community Collective applied for and received a $10,000 grant from OHSU Knight Cancer Institute to cover 10 new smoke monitors which will be placed in geographically dispersed regions throughout the region. These will be located primarily in orchards to better support orchardists and the migrant and seasonal farmworker community. Ashley Thompson, Fruit Horticulturist at OSU Extension, will help site the 10 new smoke monitors.
While improving smoke monitoring is critical, improving communication among partners during a smoke event is also incredibly important. To address communication, Wasco County applied for and received $80,000 from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for the community to create a Community Response Plan (CRP). The CRP will comprehensively address all types of smoke events, from wildfires to prescribed burns and wood stoves. This grant will also support a mock disaster drill, which will center community based organizations (CBOs) and social service providers who intimately understand the strengths and needs of the community.
In order to further improve communication, Anna Osborn, Health Promotion Services Program Manager at The Next Door, applied for and received $14,000 from United Way to support community enrollment in Everbridge, a platform for mass communication during emergencies.
The final piece of this recent set of grants is focused on smoke mitigation. The Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District, in collaboration with the Hood River Forest Collaborative, Mount Hood National Forest, and Hood River County Forestry Department, recently received a DEQ Alternatives to Burning Grant of $104,000.
“The program is intended to help address wildfire risk and reduce the amount of air pollution associated with hazardous fuel mitigation,” says Andrew Spaeth, facilitator of the Hood River Forest Collaborative.
Through this grant, homeowners and landowners will be provided with alternatives to burning, such as on-site wood chipping to be used as mulch. Another piece of this program will include using air curtain incinerators to reduce emissions and smoke associated with orchard waste.
“The air curtain burner can be used to create biochar, a charcoal-like substance that stores carbon and that can be used as a soil amendment,” says Andrew.
Together, the receipt of these recent grants is a prime example of cross-sector collaboration, with partners from public health, social service organizations, forestry and natural resource management, and emergency managers working together to address this critical community need.
While this funding currently focus on the Oregon side, the community is looking at how to support the Washington side through future grants. Another longterm goal is to place monitors at schools throughout the Columbia River Gorge because children and youth are considered a vulnerable group for poor air quality. Monitors at schools could be used to help staff put protections in place, such as implementing indoor recess on days with poor air quality, as well as helping to support science curricula for students.