Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unhappy campers: Several camps shutter due to poor air quality

By Sydney Brown and Nico Portuondo The Spokesman-Review

Camps around the Inland Northwest decided to close their doors for the week after the region experienced unhealthy air quality for several days in a row.

Camp Reed, a YMCA camp near Elk, announced Monday its decision to shut down for the week, saying they wanted to prioritize campers’ health after the smoke and air quality worsened .

Phil Harrison, executive director of YMCA Camp Reed, said they knew the smoke would affect campers enough that they had already told parents during check-in they should not be surprised if they closed because of the smoke.

“Parents are onboard for this … they understood the decision, and they understood why we had to make this decision,” Harrison said.

According to a news release from Spokane Clean Air Agency, Spokane experienced such poor air quality over the weekend it would be unhealthy for anyone to be outside in it. The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for the region Tuesday after the air quality index rose to 146 Saturday, 155 Sunday and 176 Monday.

It was the first time this year the air quality had become this unhealthy, the agency said. Smoky air poses a greater health risk for children under 18 than most adults, according to the release.

“If it was expected to clear out by say Monday night, maybe it would have been different,” Harrison said.

Camp officials had checked on the smoke conditions during the weekend and were aware it could get worse, Harrison said, so they limited physical activities and cycled children so they did not spend too much time outside in the haze.

However, after seeing the smoke and air quality worsen, Harrison said the organization spent Monday in contact with local health districts about whether they should close altogether.

They also knew the camp’s COVID-19 safety measures limited their ability to socially distance indoors, and they could not house every camper at once inside, Harrison said.

“This was a conversation that was bound to happen,” Harrison said.

The camp issued full refunds to parents of campers, according to the Camp Reed Facebook page. Harrison said the camp also expected to reopen for the next scheduled sessions.

Other camps in the region also made the tough decision to shutter.

Camp Four Echoes on Lake Coeur d’Alene, managed by the Girl Scouts of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, also closed after consulting with local health and air quality experts, said CEO Brian Newberry.

“It was a challenging day for sure; it’s a challenging day for everyone,” Newberry said.

Camp started as usual for the scouts on Sunday but they realized the smoke would pose health concerns for at least several days, Newberry said. Once they decided to close, they notified parents and started sending kids home with full refunds.

Newberry said as of Tuesday, they planned to continue with their summer sessions and reopen the camp Sunday for another full week.

Steve Jurich, executive director of Camp Fire, said Camp Sweyolakan followed suit on Tuesday and closed for the week, announcing its decision on Tuesday. The camp told parents it would offer refunds.

Camp Fire’s day camp, Camp Dart-Lo, was able to provide an indoor space and stay open, Jurich said.

“With the overnight camp, we saw it move into the unhealthy range, so we contacted the local authorities and decided it wasn’t going away any time soon and it wasn’t in the best interests of the kids,” Jurich said.

The decision was made tougher by the fact most overnight campers travel far to attend, Jurich said.

Sweyolakan, located on Mica Bay, sent a boat to get the campers around 11 a.m. Tuesday, around the time they also started notifying parents.

Parents lined up at Independence Point a few hours later, chatting about the plans they had to cancel and the shared disappointment that their kids camp experience was cut short.

Jessica Foreman was especially irked that the camp gave the parents only a few hours notice to inform them they would have to pick up their kids in the afternoon.

“I was driving a couple of hours out of town for work and had to turn right back around when I heard the news,” said Foreman, who made it to the dock in time for pick up.

With the mostly outdoor camp having little reprieve from the smoke, most parents thought it was the right decision to shut down. Going forward, they said these kinds of sudden camp closures will be something they might just have to plan for in the late summer.

“It’s unfortunate that smoke is now the fifth season,” said Angela Simpson, a parent of one of the campers.

Meanwhile, Camp Spalding on Davis Lake remains open so far, said the camp’s executive director, Andrew Sonneland, in an email.

“Campers continue to be outside … having fun in low-intensity activities (i.e. not running around)” so long as the air quality levels fall within guidelines created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency for outdoor activities in school, he said. “We are making adaptations for campers with respiratory issues, as needed. But we are continually monitoring the (air quality index) and following these guidelines to determine activity level and location (outdoors or indoors).”