PCC Researchers and Graduate Students Build Partnerships to Address Wildfire Smoke Health Risks

After two summers in a row of several statewide smoke events in Washington, addressing the health impacts of wildfire smoke on communities has never been more urgent. While many scientific questions about wildfire smoke remain unanswered, answers to questions about risk communication and public health interventions are among the most pressing needs for impacted communities. With that goal in mind, a team of PCC faculty, researchers, and graduate students came together to plan a collaborative, interdisciplinary symposium around wildfire smoke risk communication. The goal of the event was to connect practice and research communities, to provide a space where people could learn from each other, to share resources and experiences, and to develop partnerships for collaboration on practice-based research in preparation for the next wildfire season in Washington and beyond.

What we thought would be a gathering for a few dozen individuals quickly turned into an event on October 30, 2018 with over 100 interested practitioners and researchers from across the state. This was both daunting and exciting: our mini-symposium was no longer ‘mini’, and we all knew the event had to be well-organized and well-run to achieve its goal of promoting collaborations and sharing knowledge around the critical issue of wildfire smoke. Planning a full-day event that prioritizes inclusivity and participation from a variety of stakeholders was an intense and time-consuming task. However, the outpouring of interest across sectors gave us the energy we needed to make everything come together.

The day began with a series of presentations, starting with an overview of the health effects associated with wildfire smoke by Lauren Jenks from the Washington State Department of Health, serving as a grave reminder to all of us about the public health importance of the day’s topic. We then heard about wildfires in a climate change context by Dr. Amy Snover of the UW Climate Impacts Group. Next, an invited speaker, Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, shared learning and forthcoming research results from recent major fire events in California. This was followed by a panel of practitioners which included representatives from Clark, King, and Kittitas counties, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, the Colville Tribes, the Methow Valley Clean Air Project and the State Department of Health. The panelists shared their stories and experiences from the 2018 wildfire season, serving as a reminder of the toll these smoke events take on communities. The day was rounded out with an interactive method to capture ideas where participants rotate between tables and engage in conversation around a pre-specified topic. This method, while novel to many participants, was very successful at engaging people from different perspectives in discussions of specific wildfire smoke topics. The end goal of this format was to involve all participants in identifying and prioritizing research projects that symposium participants could implement as research-practice collaborations. Several themes emerged from these conversations, including a need for further research on the specifics of wildfire smoke health effects and a need for research on communication and interventions in order to assist practitioners in making informed decisions in their communities. These findings from these discussions will be shared with participants and written up for publication.

As graduate students, helping plan and participate in this event gave us an opportunity to see how we might continue to bridge the gap between research and practice, both in our current work, and in our careers after we leave UW. Furthermore, this event hammered home the importance of evidence-based risk communication around wildfire smoke. Interacting with several practitioners who felt that too little evidence was available to inform their responses to the smoke this past summer elevated the importance in our minds of ensuring our research is needed by impacted communities. Ultimately, we hope that our research and work will be useful to those communities, whether it helps inform decision making, communication, or prioritization of resources. From this event, we all learned that the needs and interest around wildfire smoke in Washington are significant, and that working and sharing knowledge across sectors is essential in order to minimize the adverse health effects that are already affecting so many communities in Washington.

Finally, a big thank you to our funders, without whom this event would not have been possible: UW Collaborative on Extreme Event Resilience, UW Program on Climate Change, UW Climate Impacts Group, UW EDGE Center, UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, UW Center for Health & the Global Environment, and Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center.

Written by PCC graduate students:
Annie Doubleday, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
Claire Pendergrast, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
Brad Kramer, Department of Health Services