Nevada senator seeks new ideas to address wildfire smoke
RENO, Nev. (AP) — Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is urging firefighters, scientists, teachers and moms to help form new strategies to deal with increasingly unhealthy air quality in Nevada caused by wildfires that continue to worsen and no relief in sight in the years ahead.
“This is something that’s happening all the time now,” the Nevada Democrat said at a roundtable gathering in Reno Wednesday with experts who shared their challenges and frustrations on numerous fronts.
The 10 worst days for small particulate pollution over the past 22 years in the Reno-Sparks area all have been recorded in the past 11 months, said Brendan Schneider, an air quality specialist for the Washoe County Health District.
The Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority’s paramedics are responding to 52% more respiratory distress calls than normal, including 458 already this month compared to a month-long norm of 350, said Adam Heinz, REMSA’s executive director of integrated health.
Smoke also has forced cancellation of 52 Care Flights this year that are critically important to rural areas that need the helicopters to transport patients from remote areas to medical centers in Reno and Las Vegas, he said.
Wildfire smoke also appears to be contributing to COVID-19 transmissions. It’s made it more difficult to keep schools safe, deliver meals to low-income seniors and allow first-responders to meet dual demands of raging wildfires and a resurgent pandemic, the experts said.
A recent Desert Research Institute study of patients at Renown regional medical center in Reno suggests COVID-19 cases increased nearly 18% during high levels of wildfire smoke in 2020, said Daniel Kaiser, a DRI researcher.
Washoe County schools faces a “Catch-22 with COVID inside and smoke outside,” said Adam Searcy, the district’s facilities boss. He said they’ve been working to replace filters and upgrade air flow systems to “try to flush the building with fresh outside air, except on days like today.”
Kacey KC, Nevada’s state fire warden and forester, said front-line responders to COVID-19 and wildfires “are the same people.”
“These people aren’t getting a break,” she said. “It used to be six months up, six months down.”
Local fire chiefs joined Cortez Masto around the tables in a conference room in the federal building beneath a smoky haze in Reno Wednesday with environmental scientists, medical researchers and a northern Nevada organizer for the Moms Clean Air Force.
They agreed with her belief they need to learn more about the long-term impacts of poor air quality on firefighters who man the front lines in the battles to snuff out the flames.
“As far as I know, nobody is studying it,” she said Wednesday. “It makes sense to me we’ve got to start to capture data. There is no data apparently. This a concern I know is not going away.”
Charles Moore, chief for the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, said firefighters take “extraordinary precautions” to protect firefighters responding to blazes in a warehouse with toxic chemicals but “not out on wildfire lines.”
Reno Fire Chief Dave Cochran said exposures to unhealthy air quality are “to some extent unavoidable” during a wildland blaze. He recommended developing new protective equipment for responders because existing versions often are not “practical on fire lines in 100-degree temperatures.”
If there’s any upside to the latest blankets of thick smoke, Cortez Masto said it’s getting the attention of politicians in Washington from regions outside the West.
“Western state senators get it,” she said. “But this is the first time I’ve heard from some of our eastern senators because they’re smelling the smoke in their air on the East Coast. They are saying to me, ’Oh, my gosh, how are you doing out there?”
Cortez Masto told reporters after the event that should help Western lawmakers make their case for “why we need to put these dollars and make this bold, big investment in wildfire suppression and recovery and preparation, and put money into the federal agencies budgets as well.”
“Does it make it easier? Absolutely.”