Trina Heisel fled Post Falls during this year’s grass-burning season so her daughter’s lungs wouldn’t be further scarred.
Four-year-old Alexandria had to be hospitalized at Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane for 17 days last September after she was caught in the smoke that swirls up from bluegrass fields when they are burned.
The cystic fibrosis patient’s breathing problems are aggravated by grass smoke, according to her doctor, Michael McCarthy of Spokane.
Early this week, Heisel thought Alexandria was safe. She brought her home from a remote cabin at Priest Lake.
That’s because Idaho growers announced Monday they were finished burning 9,000 acres. A Spokane County grower also assured Heisel late last week that smoke from the remaining fires would blow south.
But on Wednesday, the Heisels’ Post Falls house was enveloped in smoke so thick the homes of neighbors were obscured.
“I sat on the floor and cried. I could only think of the Sandpoint woman who died last month,” Heisel said.
Heisel placed a frantic call to Spokane air-quality cops.
“She called us asking if there was a safe place to go,” said Matt Holmquist, an air-quality specialist with the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
“It’s unbelievable out here,” a sobbing Heisel said as she rushed Alexandria into her car.
McCarthy had just told her to get out of Post Falls - fast. He told her to drive to Spokane with a wet rag over the blond child’s face to keep out the smoke.
Where was the smoke coming from? Growers disagreed.
Although 2,000 acres of bluegrass were burned Wednesday on tribal land, the smoke that invaded the Post Falls-Coeur d’Alene area wasn’t from the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation, said tribal press secretary Bob Bostwick.
The tribe leases land to non-Indian bluegrass growers.
“Our guys are saying it’s from southern Spokane County,” Bostwick said.
But a spokeswoman for the Intermountain Grass Growers Association said growers on tribal land and in Spokane County were both responsible.
“It’s both their smoke,” said Linda Clovis. “The smoke didn’t get a good rise,” she said.
Spokane County growers torched between 2,000 and 4,000 acres, but shut off the burning early when they realized the winds were shifting to the northeast, SCAPCA’s Holmquist said.
There’s more to come.
Because of wet weather and poor burning conditions, Spokane County growers may not finish by Sept. 30, when they usually end their burning season, Clovis said.
Some clean-air activists thought burning in southern Spokane County would be reduced to about 17,000 acres this year as a result of a new state emergency rule that orders a 33 percent cut in acreage burned.
But registered bluegrass acres in Spokane County rose this year, from 26,863 last year to 32,625 acres. That means growers can torch up to 21,490 acres this year under the emergency rule.
Heisel is furious that she was misled - and that her daughter’s still in danger.
The family’s medical bills have already exceeded $30,000 for Alexandria’s hospitalizations during two burning seasons. Last year, her ordeal included a series of painful injections of powerful drugs into her veins to keep her breathing.
Late Wednesday at her grandmother’s house in Spokane, Alexandria was struggling to breathe normally.
“I should have stayed at Priest Lake. This has been the most terrifying experience of my life. I don’t understand how they can do this,” Heisel said.
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