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Second Big Health Issue Looming: Wildfires

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz has plenty to worry about with managing the local public health response to the coronavirus. But now he has another issue on his radar screen: wildfires.

Lutz is regularly on the phone with Washington Department of Health officials about Covid-related issues. But Thursday afternoon, he was also preparing to talk with them about the upcoming wildfire season.

“It’s not as if, because of Covid-19, wildfire is not going to happen. And, gosh, it would be really difficult if we have both of these issues affecting us during the summer," Lutz said.

Despite normal levels of snowpack this winter, the National Interagency Fire Center calls for a risk of significant wildfire activity in eastern and central Washington and north Idaho in July and August.

Lutz says that means there’s again the potential for smoke to waft through or hover over the region again this summer.

One of the issues he worries about is preparing people for that. He says sometimes there are mixed messages sent out by government agencies. Some pay attention to guidelines and advice sent out by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and some pay attention to information that comes from the state health department.

“If you’re in a community, say in Spokane, where we have a Clean Air Agency that is using EPA guidance, if I go to another county that may be in the same sort of zone, they use a different scale. And they mean the same, but they don’t. And so, which number do you use?” Lutz said.

At what point do you begin advising people to stay inside? Or wear masks if they have sensitive lungs?

That’s not here yet. But as Lutz said, last year, we tried to be prepared for wildfire season in May. And look, this year, it’s already May and we’re not ready yet.