It’s not a question of if, but when, the next big wildfire will strike and a new study from Stanford indicates that we are not prepared for the smoke.
The study looked at how we are being asked to protect ourselves from the haze that accompanies these massive fires and found that people’s safety is far too likely to be tied to their economic status.
“Instead of trying to limit the existence of fires, policymakers have mainly recommended that people protect themselves either by staying indoors or by turning on air purifiers, so we were interested in looking at the effectiveness of these recommendations,” said Sam Heft-Neal. of the Center for Food Security and the Environment.
With the help of social media data from English- and Spanish-speaking communities, Stanford researcher Heft-Neal and other scientists found that everyone in California cares about air quality.
But when it comes to taking the next step, searches for air purifiers and any other solution were much more likely to occur only in high-income households.
“We find that not only in Google searches, but also using cellphone tracking data, we can see that wealthier households are more likely to change their travel patterns in response to wildfires,” said said Heft-Neal.
It’s one of many findings that lead them to believe we need to do more to protect people, especially those in low-income communities, from the effects of wildfire smoke.
“More public safety options could include something like clean air centers in libraries or other public buildings,” Heft-Neal said.
Another option is to subsidize the cost of air purifiers for low-income families, something very similar to what the Bay Area Air District is currently doing.
Over the past year, they have distributed 1,200 portable air filtration units to homeless and low-income residents.
“A lot of these low-income communities have older housing stock where it’s difficult to completely close windows or fill cracks under doors,” said Veronica Eady, deputy managing director of Policy and Equity.
They have also received grants to provide schools with air filters and say they are working with the state to open clean air centers in the coming months.
But they understand, and the study seems to show, that all of these programs need to be scaled up.
“Thousands and thousands and thousands, we don’t reach by far as many people and almost as many families as we need to reach, we’re working on getting donations from some manufacturers,” Eady said.