Smoke was still choking out the blue sky and darkening the sun on Wednesday morning when Nevada U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto met for a roundtable discussion with local firefighting and health officials, scientists, educators and an organizer for Moms Clean Air Force to talk about wildfires and the detrimental effects they have on air quality.
Fires have scorched Nevada, Oregon and California for months now, burning record numbers of acres and polluting skies for weeks.
Cortez Masto spoke about the Western Wildfire Support Act. She introduced the legislation last month to help prevent wildfires, fund state-of-the-art firefighting equipment and programs and support recovery efforts for communities impacted by fires.
It’s a part of the massive infrastructure spending bill still awaiting approval in the house. If approved it would allocate around $3.4 billion to wildfire prevention in Western states over five years.
The funding would be spread across 17 pots, including money for older schools to have their HVAC updated or clean energy sources installed. It would also direct $10 million toward wildfire detection equipment—including cameras and heat sensors—in at-risk wildfire areas, building upon the success of the ALERTWildfire camera network that originated in Lake Tahoe.
Centrist Democrats want the House to vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill prior to the chamber taking up Democrats’ proposal to boost the social safety net through a broader spending plan.
Progressives, on the other hand, have said they would prefer to wait to take up either plan, until the Senate has approved both of them.
“My goal, as I sit on [Senate Committee on] Energy and Natural Resources, is to make sure that people understand—particularly for our Western states—that this is something that’s happening all the time now. And we need the resources,” she said.
She said Western states’ senators know the importance of funding wildfire suppression and prevention but that she’s recently been hearing from senators in Eastern states where wildfire smoke has drifted from the massive blazes burning on the opposite side of the country from them.
Cortez Masto told roundtable attendees that they will need to help her get the funding into Nevada by applying for it after the package is approved.
“You guys are really on the frontlines, and I want to make sure the money is coming into Nevada where we need it,” she said. “So, I just want to thank you for that.”
Wildfires create multiple health risks
After speaking about the Western Wildfire Support Act, Cortez Masto asked those assembled to talk about their ideas for addressing wildfire and their concerns about the havoc it has wreaked during this year’s massive fires.
Wildfire smoke appears to be contributing to COVID-19 transmissions, according to research from the Desert Research Institute (DRI).
A DRI study of patients at Renown Regional Medical Center indicated that COVID-19 cases increased nearly 18% during high levels of wildfire smoke in 2020. This was according to DRI researcher Daniel Kiser.
Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health had similar findings, published in the Aug. 13 issue of Science Advances. Their study found increased cases and deaths from COVID-19 in California, Oregon and Washington directly attributable to increased wildfire smoke from Western fires during 2020.
Kiser noted that the cause of the increase is not entirely clear. He said it could be that particulates in the air from fires make people more susceptible to infection, or it could be that the virus is “hitching a ride” on the particulates. He said it also could be that people are congregating indoors more often as a result of the hazy air outside.
Adam Searcy, chief facilities management officer for the Washoe County School District (WCSD), called it a Catch-22 for the school district, with heavy smoke outside and COVID-19 inside buildings. He said district personnel “try to flush” buildings with fresh outside air, except on heavy smoke days.
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, according to Brendan Schneider, an air quality specialist for the Washoe County Health District (WCHD).
Adam Heinz, the executive director of integrated health for the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA), said paramedics have been responding to 52% more respiratory distress calls than normal. This includes 458 in the month of August, as of Wednesday, compared to a normal of 350 per month.
Heinz said smoke has also forced cancellation of 52 Care Flights this year that are important for rural areas where people need helicopters to transport them from remote areas to medical centers in Reno and Las Vegas.
Fire agencies struggle to reduce risk, keep the pace
Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District Chief Charles Moore said fire agencies take extra precautions to protect firefighters responding to structure fires like homes, businesses and warehouses where blazes burn toxic chemicals but that fewer precautions are possible or taken for those fighting on the lines of wildfires.
Some protections put in place when firefighters are responding to house fires are not practical when crews are fighting a blaze outside in hot summer temperatures exacerbated by fire, said Dave Cochran, chief of the Reno Fire Department. He suggested that fire departments might find ways to rotate personnel on and off of frontline duties by cross-training them for other jobs within their departments.
He also recommended looking into the development of new protective equipment for firefighters, as existing versions, like masks, are very often not “practical on fire lines in 100-degree temperatures.”
Kacey KC, state fire warden, spoke about earlier retirement and increased health benefits firefighters in Nevada Division of Forestry receive that others don’t. However, she noted that their jobs have become increasingly difficult.
“These people aren’t getting a break,” she said. “It used to be six months up, six months down … We’re just seeing more fire, more often, more destructive. There’s more homes in these areas than there was before. So, it’s the complexity of what we’re asking people to do—both from a forestry perspective and from a firefighting perspective.”
She said she appreciated everyone being in a room together because agencies tend to focus so much on just what they’re doing individually.
“It takes all of us to get that message and that education out there,” she said.
“…Wildfire, especially in this area as we’re seeing right now…is a part of our lives. And it’s not going away.”
Nevada Division of Outdoor Recreation Administrator Colin Robertson noted that the state usually brings in about $5.5 billion per year from those seeking to explore its natural wonders but that air quality is impacting outdoor recreation in the state.
Robertson said agencies need the resources to manage public lands appropriately by having funding and enough staff to enforce things like campfire bans. Most do not, he said, adding that messaging to the public is also important.
“I think, on the same level, social influence through social media is something that we have not tapped into,” Robertson said. “You know, we talk about alerts and who has access to that information—but if we leverage the power of social media’s influence better, we’ll be in a better position.”
Leveraging social media is something that looks different for different fire agencies and organizations, but it’s something they’re all doing. From Twitter to Facebook and podcasts to new apps, agencies and organizations in the Truckee Meadows have been working on new ways of staying connected to the community they serve.
Living with Fire program releases new podcast
Megan Kay is a former wildland firefighter and the current outreach coordinator for the Living with Fire (LWF) program at the University of Nevada, Reno. The program has been around since 1997. Its purpose is to provide recommendations to residents on preparing for wildfire and reducing wildfire threats to homes and communities.
Now, LWF has a new podcast.
“We were just looking at new ways to reach people,” Kay said. “That’s where it started. We have a really great history of creating publications and doing in-person events, but because of COVID the in-person events came to a complete halt. We’re still pumping out publications—but we just wanted to find a way to relate to people and reach a different demographic, maybe a younger demographic than we’re used to engaging with.”
Kay said she’s an avid podcast listener and thinks this podcast can be “a way to reach new people and kind of provide more of an education experience” outside of the regular publications and fact sheets LWF puts out, which she said are still important.
“This is more about putting those things in context and getting to actually talk to people,” Kay said. “So, we can kind of wrap our brains around fire ecology and the history of fire—because wildfire, especially in this area as we’re seeing right now with the Dixie fire and before that the Beckwourth Complex, is a part of our lives. And it’s not going away.”
The podcast doesn’t just cover expert explanations of rangeland management and fire ecology. It also examines the experiences of everyday people who’ve been affected by wildfire and things like the various uses of fire by Indigenous people, whose history on Western lands far predates the arrival of colonists.
An episode of the LWF podcast will feature the use of fire on part of the traditional lands of the Washoe Tribe. The guests are Helen Fillmore and Rhiana Jones, specialists with the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California Environmental Protection Department, who will discuss contemporary restoration projects in Meeks Meadows near Lake Tahoe and the ways in which Indigenous peoples historically used natural fuels like dead trees and prescribed burning to maintain a balance within that culturally significant environment.
The California Tahoe Conservancy Board in late 2020 awarded a grant of just over $380,000 to the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California for the Máyala Wáta Restoration Project at Meeks Meadow. The meadow was historically a summer camp for the Washoe people. It was a place they fished, hunted game, gathered plant materials and held ceremonies.
Cattle grazing, logging and fire suppression following the displacement of the Washoe people have long been implicated in the degradation of Meeks Meadow. The project is planned to remove encroaching pine trees prior to a culturally guided prescribed burning and the planting of culturally significant vegetation and removal of invasive species.
Kay said she is particularly excited for this episode’s release. Seven episodes are planned for the first season, and a second season has been confirmed.
Kay has taken on the role of producer for the podcast and is the voice listeners will hear most often. Christina Restaino, director of LWF, and Jamie Roice-Gomes, the program’s manager, often feature as guest interviewers. Jordan Buxton, a recent graduate of UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism, is helping as an independent contractor for LWF with recording and editing tasks.
“We’re living in 2021, and people consume media differently,” Kay said. “So, we have a few different campaigns going. Our social media campaign is more about just consistent messaging on these concepts like defensible space and home hardening—just consistent messaging that will hopefully sink in.
“The podcast is something we’ve never done before. It’s more long-form storytelling and trying to relate to people on a personal level. … People want to hear stories. They want to hear how other people have done things. They want to hear how other people have been impacted by things,” she added.
Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District casts a wide social net
Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District (TMFPD) Communications Manager Adam Mayberry also said he sees the importance of sharing human stories. He does so via social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“I do something called ‘Friday Firefighter,’ where almost every Friday I’ll highlight one of our firefighters—because all of our personnel have their own stories. And we want to celebrate our firefighters and our personnel who work for the district,” he said.
But TMFPD and LWF also share more urgent updates from one another and agencies like the Washoe County Health Department’s Air Quality Management Division through social media, especially when they’re trying to reach journalists.
“Twitter’s the most powerful tool for us during the heat of the moment because it’s quick. It’s fast, and the media monitors it,” Mayberry said.
While Twitter is an important tool during a fire incident, be it wildland or urban, it’s not the only one to which TMFPD turns. The agency also uses the hyperlocal social networking service for neighborhoods, Nextdoor, which Mayberry described as a powerful tool.
“Maybe we’re holding our Green Waste Collection Days where people can drop off their green waste to help create defensible space,” he said. “We can deliver that message to over 100,000 viewers because … Nextdoor allows public safety organizations—police, fire—to have access … to reach their residents.”
Pushing out timely information takes up a fair amount of Mayberry’s bandwidth, but he also sees the importance of sharing updates on platforms like Facebook and Instagram—where users are often seeking entertainment. Mayberry said when the TMFPD posts a video that gains a lot of likes, it can help the agency pick up more followers—which, in turn, helps him reach more people with his urgent posts.
A recent example of this is a video on Facebook that has been watched more than 76,000 times. It shows TMFPD crews at the recent Tamarack fire evacuating their position on the fire line and having to flee in their vehicles through walls of flame to reach safety.
“It raises awareness of who we are, what we do,” Mayberry said. “It raises the idea that wildfires are real, that they’re dangerous—and they’re dangerous for firefighters as well… It allows us to gain followers, and that’s what I want because I want to have the widest net possible in the event of an emergency.”
Reno Fire Department asks residents to connect with them
The Reno Fire Department (RFD) does the same kinds of social media outreach as TMFPD and other agencies, but the thing Battalion Chief Jeff Voskamp is really excited about is Reno Community Connect.
Reno Community Connect is the public facing side of an emergency response software called First Due that RFD has been using since 2020.
When RFD crews respond to a house or business fire, they already have some information available to them that has been scraped from places like the assessor’s office. They’ll know basics like when a home was built and can pull up a photo of its exterior.
Reno Community Connect is designed to allow business owners and residents—whether they’re renters or homeowners—to provide RFD personnel with more information in the event emergency response is needed at their address.
“It’s not just for houses. It’s for apartments too,” Voskamp explained. “If you’re in a high-rise like the Montage, it’ll work for that also. It goes by your address, so it doesn’t matter if you live in a 5,000-square-foot house or a 500-square foot apartment. We’ll take the information either way.”
Residents can create an account on Community Connect and then fill in all sorts of information about their homes and the people who live in them.
“You get to share information with us, and make us better able to serve you,” Voskamp said.
Things like the number of entrances and bedrooms are the basics. Residents can also list what types of fire suppression systems their homes have. And they can let the fire department know where their gas, electrical and water shutoffs are located.
One of the big things Voskamp touts about Community Connect is that it allows residents to list who lives in their homes–pets and people–and if anyone has special needs. This can be particularly useful for households with a member who’s bedridden or developmentally disabled.
“Again, this isn’t just for response to fires,” Voskamp said. “What if we were responding to a house where one of the caregivers for a developmentally disabled person is the one having the medical emergency and can’t communicate with us? Now, we know there’s a developmentally disabled person there, and we know how to approach. We’ve had autism awareness and other specialized training to help us deal with that.”
Residents can also list their household’s meeting place in the event of an emergency.
“So, if you say your meeting place is by the mailbox, and we walk up to the mailbox and nobody’s there, we’re going to go inside and initiate a search. Versus if we show up and everybody’s at the mailbox, you tell us everybody is out, and we can go straight to firefighting,” Voskamp said.
He said more than a thousand households have already signed up on Reno Community Connect, but he would like to see many more do so.
“We live in an age now where we’re all about information sharing, but … we’re sharing information with everybody except the people who can really help in times of need,” Voskamp said. “We want to be that person you share with, that person you give that critical information for when you do need us.”
Voskamp would like to find additional funding to allow the RFD to have a person whose full-time job is to manage Reno Community Connect. A dedicated person could analyze the data from Community Connect and compare it to the calls RFD responds to each month. They could follow up with residents after incidents to see if they’ve signed up for the program.
Information like how many falling injuries RFD responds to and in which neighborhoods could prompt a public safety campaign, like the installation of safety bars in the bathrooms of elderly residents, he said.
“Social media has been great for us telling you about what we’re doing, us telling you about what you should do, us telling you about when it’s safe air quality or when it’s not safe or about fire season,” Voskamp said. “It’s very good about broadcasting statements. But this, this is personal. We get to now ask you, ‘You tell us.’”
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.