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

Spokane City Council passes emergency air quality ordinance

Wildfire smoke shrouds the South Hill as a Spokane Fire Department engine rolls across the Maple Street Bridge, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Spokane.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Two weeks ago, Spokane’s skies turned gray as wildfire smoke from afar wafted over the city and plunged the region’s air quality into the “very unhealthy” range.

Blue skies have returned, but this month’s smoke convinced the Spokane City Council to amend city law and make it easier for people to seek refuge when the air outside becomes unhealthy to breathe.

On Monday, the council unanimously approved an emergency ordinance that requires the city to provide shelter space when air quality reaches 201 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index. Air quality is considered to be “very unhealthy” when it exceeds 200.

Under the previous version of the law, Spokane didn’t have to provide shelter space until the air quality index hit 250. Officials often cancel outdoor school activities and youth sporting events at the 150 threshold, which marks the beginning of the “unhealthy” category on the air quality index.

“Two-hundred-and-fifty is really too high,” Spokane City Councilman Zack Zappone said.

Monday’s ordinance updates the emergency weather law the City Council passed last year, which is primarily aimed at protecting homeless individuals. The city has not had to activate any safe air centers since the ordinance was adopted.

Spokane’s emergency weather law doesn’t just require the city to provide shelter when air quality plummets. It also requires the city to provide individuals with shelter during times of extreme heat or cold. Spokane must activate warming shelters when temperatures fall below freezing and low-barrier shelters, those that don’t impose a requirement of sobriety on guests, are at 90% capacity. The city has to open cooling shelters when temperatures are forecast at 95 degrees or higher on two consecutive days.

Zappone said an emergency ordinance lowering the threshold for activating safe air centers was needed because air quality could fall to “very unhealthy” levels again before the end of the year.

“We are still in smoke season,” he said.

When air quality reaches the “very unhealthy” category, the city will provide shelter space in the Trent Resource and Assistance Center, a newly opened facility designed to provide housing for the homeless.