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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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As they prepare for smoke season, Spokane leaders consider adding more air monitors and protections for homeless

June 26, 2019 Updated Wed., June 26, 2019 at 9:04 a.m.

The spires of Saint Aloysius Catholic Church are clouded in smoke from regional fires generating unhealthy air in much of northeastern Washington and North Idaho, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The spires of Saint Aloysius Catholic Church are clouded in smoke from regional fires generating unhealthy air in much of northeastern Washington and North Idaho, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The main focus of today’s Smoke Ready Communities Day – a collaboration of the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency, Spokane Regional Health District and Greater Spokane Emergency Management – is to provide the community with information and resources to prepare for wildfire season, especially those people who are vulnerable.

“We know after the last couple of summers that we have experienced significant smoke impacts, and so we know that we can expect that,” said Lisa Woodard, Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency communications and outreach manager. “While we can’t predict exactly when the smoke will hit us and how bad it will be, we certainly can be prepared, as individuals, as business owners and as a community.”

Woodard said there are many resources on the clean air agency’s website, which will be updated frequently as the season progresses. The website also displays the current air quality index, which is updated on an hourly basis.

Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane County health officer, said vulnerable populations include the elderly, babies, young children and those with cardiac or pulmonary issues. Lutz said it’s important to note the danger of poor air quality isn’t simply the particulate matter, but also its mix of volatile gases and other substances.

Lutz said people who don’t fall into a vulnerable category still need to make a plan to adapt this fire season. Lutz said he also considers those who have prolonged exposure to poor air quality as a vulnerable population, which would include the homeless.

Woodard, Lutz and Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs said they were not aware of any concrete plans to protect the homeless, but all mentioned the possibility there would be “air quality stations,” similar to heating or cooling stations.

“It’s strange, because it doesn’t seem that long ago we were trying to make sure people weren’t freezing to death at night, and now it’s almost smoke season and we have to have something figured out,” Beggs said.

Beggs said he wanted people to have more information this season in order to make practical decisions, such as whether to cancel soccer practice or go on a run, which sparked his interest in purchasing a few air quality monitors from a company called PurpleAir and placing them in various locations in the city.

“I think it would be a good tool,” Beggs said. “ … People would have more specific data about their actual location because it varies throughout the town.”

There is currently one PurpleAir sensor on the South Hill, which was not purchased by the city. The monitors cost $200 to $300 and may be purchased by private citizens or businesses.

Lutz has concerns about the sensors, saying their reliability hasn’t been proven and the public might become confused with varying answers on air quality. He said the current air quality monitoring system accounts for things such as volatility in weather, which can give people more accurate information.

“My concern is that we’re getting too far out in front of where we are right now with trying to provide people with real-time data,” Lutz said.

Beggs still thinks there could be merit in the PurpleAir sensors, because they could be placed in public areas throughout the city that have high foot traffic, such as Riverfront Park or public libraries.

“It’s not so much that any one sensor is the 100% correct sensor, but what you want to look at is the changes in that sensor,” Beggs said. “I think that’s why the more sensors we have, the better.

“We can look at all of them and make a decision.”

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