Gonzaga Climate Institute Receives Grant to Increase Wildfire Smoke Safety in Low Income Neighborhoods
News Story by Mia Gallegos | FāVS News
On Jan. 23, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced four grant applicants who will be receiving funding in order to support their surrounding communities in times of extreme wildfire smoke pollution. All four recipients are organizations based in the Pacific Northwest.
Of the more than $10 million in grant money coming from the Biden-Harris Administration, $3.4 million is going toward aiding communities in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, including the Institute for Climate, Water, and the Environment at Gonzaga University, which was awarded $1.1 million of this total.
“We’re partnering with the City of Spokane, Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency and the University of Washington to do the work,” said Dante Jester, the climate resilience coordinator at Gonzaga University, who is overseeing several of the operations that the grant is seeking to carry out.
When applying for the grant, applicants had to prove some sort of necessity for this sort of award to be endowed to their community. Within their application, the Climate Institute mentioned three community centers in need of increased safety measures when it comes to wildfire smoke: the West Central Community Center, Northeast Community Center and the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center.
What Identifies an Area Needing Aid?
A geographical area can be identified as needing aid if it has these traits: low average income, high unemployment rate and a large portion of the population with less than a high school education.
“We had to prove that the neighborhoods surrounding the Northeast Community Center and the West Central Community Center and also the MLK Center fell into those indicators. So that makes them perhaps more vulnerable just socioeconomically and across other indicators,” said Sarah Nuss, the director of Emergency Management for the City of Spokane.
Nuss said many areas across the Pacific Northwest are in need of increased safety measures during the summer smoke months, but these underserved areas may need more assistance than others.
“Anyone who can breathe [is] vulnerable to wildfire smoke. So in theory, everyone would need resources to support them. But when we look at those more marginalized communities, they need more resources across the board just like any other indicator like food support, energy support during extreme heat or cold, etc.,” she said.
What Are the Goals of the Grant?
The goals that the Climate Institute has for this grant are vast and will need help from community partners, including the City of Spokane, Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (SRCAA) and the University of Washington.
Jester explained the various operations that have already commenced within each of the community centers that are mentioned in the grant.
“West Central is getting a bunch of DIY air filtration kits to hand out to members of the community. That’s just like a box fan with an air filter that you can set up in your house,” they said.
The MLK Family Outreach Center has already received a new HVAC system in their building and the installation of one for the Northeast Community Center is in the works.
In addition to the infrastructure updates within these community centers, there are elements of community outreach and education that are being pursued with part of the grant money. With the help of UW, the Climate Institute will be sending out a community survey to gather information on how the community has handled intense smoke pollution in years past.
“We’ll be asking people ‘how dangerous do you think smoke is’ and ‘what do you do during a smoke event?’ Questions like that to get an idea of how people experience wildfire smoke in Spokane,” Jester said.
Along with the community survey, there will be a stakeholder symposium in June focused on addressing the issue of wildfire smoke. At this conference-style event, community members impacted by wildfire smoke will gather to hear from speakers and discuss potential solutions. The symposium will provide an opportunity for those affected by wildfire smoke to come together and engage in conversation about ways to solve this problem.
‘We Have a lot of Plans’
The final allotment of the grant money will be put toward the Smoke Health Education Campaign, which is being conducted by SRCAA and the Spokane Regional Health District.
“They’ll be creating educational material around extreme wildfire smoke in Spokane and distributing [it] in the community so people can be knowledgeable about how smoke impacts them and how they can be safe,” Jester said.
The $1.1 million is enough to satisfy the goals of the Climate Institute, but the outpouring of ideas for how to better serve the community in times of environmental crisis has inspired them to pursue more grants.
“We have a lot of plans to continue applying for more funding to continue building out our project but we’re super grateful to the EPA for this opportunity, and it’s definitely a wonderful starting point to get this work on the ground and running,” Jester said.