SANTA FE – In the days after lightning struck in the Santa Fe National Forest in late August 2020, smoke from the Medio Fire darkened the region’s skies and obscured the Sangre De Cristos.
As the smoke increased, so did the calls to a small forestry nonprofit from people asking for help cleaning the air in their homes. Requests poured in for air purifier loans, which extended far beyond the capacity of the small program at Forest Stewards Guild – recalled Eytan Krasilovsky, the nonprofit’s deputy director.
“It became clear that we loaned out all our filters, we tried to get all the ones from those other places over here, to loan out,” he said about 2020. “But then the waitlist was 60 to 70 people long. The little program was just not able to handle an incident of any size or duration.”
In response, they encouraged the purchase of air filters, or the construction of Corsi-Rosenthal boxes – which use box fans and furnace filters to cheaply build an effective air filter.
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However, beyond 2020, large wildfires have worsened air quality within the state and across the U.S.
“I think for a program like this to really meet the needs for clean air in fire-prone landscapes, you need health departments, you need state or local government to really step in and provide a solution at-scale,” Krasilovsky said.
What is the program?
Forest Stewards Guild assists with forest management, that includes using prescribed burns and running programs such as youth corps.
One small program is loaning out air purifiers during prescribed burns – unique across the state.
The organization started the program in 2018, acknowledging that prescribed burns, while crucial to forest health, pose potential harms. Forest Stewards Guild provided a mitigation tool for people living close to prescribed burns.
“If you’re gonna put smoke in the air, it’s important to acknowledge the seriousness of that,” Krasilovsky said.
Smoke is complex, often a mixture of gasses and pieces of varying sizes released as materials burn. Most smoke has carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other particles.
High-quality air filters or purifiers can filter out very small particles. The greatest concerns are extremely small particles, often called 2.5 PM. Since they are so small, they can travel deep into the lungs and affect heart health.
Krasilovsky shows the different layers of filters inside the Winix 5500-2 that the nonprofit will loan out during prescribed burns. (Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
Smoke can irritate the eyes, cause wheezing, coughing, inability to breath and headaches. And it can aggravate existing lung and heart conditions.
Forest Stewards Guild started out with nine filters in Santa Fe, purchased with the help of the Santa Fe Fire Department. With additional funding from New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension, they expanded to 25 air filters and four sites. There’s Santa Fe, the Fire Department in Angel Fire, and forestry offices in Chama, and El Rito. Two programs – one in Cuba, the other, Taos – are paused.
Forest Stewards Guild isn’t a public health agency, said Krasilovsky, and the nonprofit is limited, only having 15 members of staff.
“This effort is largely shoestring, not because we don’t value it, but because it’s not easy to fund,” Krasilovsky said.
He said he hopes state agencies and tribal governments will look for ways to better indoor air quality for much of the state. Krasilovsky pointed to larger grants for which state and tribal governments also qualify, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Wildfire Smoke Preparedness in Community Buildings, or environmental justice grants.
“You can make the case that large swathes of New Mexico are in need of clean air support because of topography, ecosystems, regional wildfires and smoke,” he said. “You could probably help a lot of people with respiratory issues by getting a multi-million dollar loan for New Mexico to administer.”
Krasilovsky said the program’s impact is hard to quantify since it’s so personal. ‘When we get a filter to someone who needs it, it makes a huge difference,’ he said. ‘Sometimes the smoke can be debilitating for people or just the anxiety around the smoke can be debilitating. And just having the unit helps people get on with their day-to-day.’ (Photo by Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
Who else is doing this?
In 2022, lawmakers in Oregon passed a $220 million package to mitigate the impacts of wildfire. This included providing the Oregon Health Authority $4.7 million to purchase and distribute 5,000 air purifiers within the state.
Predominantly, the filters went to people enrolled in Medicaid, since the program was targeted for low-income people with health risks, said Erica Heartquist, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority.
The program will be a permanent part of Oregon’s Medicaid program going forward.
“We are distributing again in 2023,” Heartquist wrote in an email responding to Source NM questions. “We will be transitioning it to a Medicaid-funded program in 2024.”
Other smoke mitigation Oregon is looking to do, but hasn’t implemented yet includes using non-emergency transport to get people to clean air centers during smokey days.
Firefighters carry gear while conducting structural triage in the upper Timberline area in Packwood, Washington during the 2022 Goat Rocks Fire. (Jared Wenzelburger / The Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Karuk Tribal Health and Human Services Program in California, which has used prescribed burning for thousands of years as a cultural practice, also provides air purifiers for loan to households in the Klamath River channel.
New Mexico does not have a similar program.
“The New Mexico Department of Health does not stock HEPA filters or air purifiers,” wrote David Morgan, a spokesperson for NMDOH, in a request for comment.
When asked if New Mexico would consider implementing a program, Morgan noted it may be under a different agency.
“The Human Services Department would have to determine if such items would qualify for purchase using New Mexico’s allocated Medicaid funds,” Morgan wrote.
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New Mexico HSD does not have a program either, according to spokesperson Tim Fowler, saying the agency would need permission from federal officials.
“To establish a HEPA filter program, we will need to review medical necessity criteria, determine a financial impact and seek guidance and approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” Fowler said in an emailed response.
Other programs HSD provided during 2022 wildfires were emergency food aids, utility assistance and crisis counseling, Fowler said.
‘Fires will be with us in perpetuity’
Doug Cram, a forest and fire specialist at NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service, said the loan program was a novel idea to help people keep clean air during prescribed burns, which can offer autonomy and alleviate health concerns.
“With the filter they can mitigate the smoke, typically for a prescribed burn it’s a defined window, and get clean air,” he said.
He sees the uncomfortable irony in advocating for prescribed burns in New Mexico, but said it’s a vital way to manage watersheds and forests.
“It’s kind of a hollow statistic that 98% of the time, these burns do go as planned,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the West, after a lot of fuel buildup, it can go wrong, and be pretty devastating for communities and individuals and watersheds.”
A house that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned down. Pictured on Monday, Sept. 12. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Cram, who grew up in Los Alamos, said he got into the field, fascinated by mountain ecosystems and fire. This includes the 2001 Cerro Grande Fire, which was started by an escaped prescribed burn.
Prescribed burns from the U.S. Forest Service ignited the state’s largest wildfires in 2022, including the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, and the Cerro Pelado Fire.
Despite the devastating nature of those fires, Cram said the science is clear that prescribed burns are key to reducing fuels for bigger forest fires. A warmer and drier climate is only adding fuel to future wildfires.
“For decades we tried the opposite approach,” he said. “We tried, saying, ‘we live in an arid environment, let’s prevent any and all fires,’ and that just simply doesn’t work.”
U.S. Forest Service says it’s not obligated to follow state law on prescribed burns
Even if all prescribed burns stopped, there’s other means of fires.
“Lightning is not going away, so fires will be with us in perpetuity,” Cram said.
Cram said lawmakers’ passage this past session of a law limiting prescribed burns during bad fire conditions, could point to investing in a public health effort to provide clean air during prescribed burns or other smoke events.
“The state is sort of embracing this idea that prescribed fire is a useful tool. And so it makes sense that at some point that maybe there’ll be some funding for the health department type approach,” he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not certify air purification or air filtration systems. However, to assess what filters work best, look for a rating of Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value 13 or MERV-13. Those kinds of filters are rated to trap smaller particles, (such as viruses or PM 2.5 sized particles).
The New York Time’s Wirecutter reviews of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are here.
Additional video instructions for building your own MERV-13 filters using air conditioning system filters and a box fan can be found here.