Tag: wildfire smoke

In Reversal, City and County Will Open Smoke Shelter in SoDo

Image by Matt Howard via Upsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

In a reversal of their previous policy, the city of Seattle and King County now plan to open one temporary shelter for people living outdoors to escape from a “super massive” plume of wildfire smoke expected to roll in starting Friday, The C Is for Crank has learned. The shelter will be at a large warehouse in SoDo and will provide protection for up to 77 people.

UPDATE: Officials from the county and city officially announced the shelter this morning. “The building is large enough to create substantial physical distancing inside,” county executive Dow Constantine said. In fact, the building is so large that it could hold up to 300 people. The shelter, which will be open until at least Monday, will be operated by the Salvation Army with assistance from the county’s public health reserve corps.

According to the latest Point In Time count of the county’s homeless population, there were at least 5,500 people living unsheltered in King County last January.

Earlier this week, a spokeswoman from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said that the city, following guidance from Seattle/King County Public Health, did not plan at that time to open any new indoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness in response to unhealthy air conditions because the risk of COVID-19 transmission in congregate settings outweighed the health risks posed by prolonged smoke exposure. The spokeswoman, Kamaria Hightower, said that “should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast,” the city has “access to a range of facilities.”

The city has not opened cooling centers this summer, arguing that the risk of COVID transmission outweighed the risk from high temperatures. Although advocates—and several city council members—have sought to move homeless people into hotel and motel rooms for the duration of the epidemic, the mayor has resisted such proposals. The city has contributed funding for a hotel in Renton that is being used as a long-term shelter through a contract with the county. On Friday, Durkan said the city was considering all options, but that hotels presented special challenges, such as the need to provide staffing for people in individual rooms.

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The city and county have been cautious about opening smoke shelters. As recently as Thursday morning, King County Public Health spokesman Doug Williams said the county would not recommend opening new emergency shelters specifically to provide protection from wildfire smoke. “The spaces that exist in Seattle with proper air ventilation/filtration”—five sites outfitted last year specifically to serve as smoke shelters— “are currently being used as distancing shelters for the homeless population,” Williams said.

This is only partly true—two of five such spaces, Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall (both at Seattle Center) are being used for this purpose. One, the Seattle Center Armory, is partly open for business and is not serving as shelter, and the two remaining sites, Rainier Beach Community Center and the International District/Chinatown Community Center, are not being used as shelter. And the county and city have not previously disclosed their ongoing work to develop the SoDo site as emergency shelter.

At Friday’s press conference, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson said the city had discussed opening the Armory as a smoke shelter but that Seattle Center did “not have the staffing level to open that facility to a large number of individuals, nor did the provider comm unity have the capacity to help staff that facility.”

“The CDC has issued guidance against congregate cooling centers because of the increased risk of COVID transmission,” Williams continued. The CDC recommends that congregate cooling shelters include information about preventing COVID transmission, and that they include proper social distancing and as much air filtration as practical. Although the recommendation does note that congregate settings can increase the risk of COVID transmission, it consists mostly of advice for how to open congregate cooling centers as safely as possible, and is not blanket recommendation against providing temporary shelter from dangerous weather conditions. 

Amanda Richer, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness who was homeless until fairly recently herself, said Thursday that she contacted the city’s Human Services Department a month ago about the need to prepare for wildfires and hot weather in addition to the COVID crisis. She said she was glad that the city and county were taking action to help some people experiencing homelessness escape the smoke. But, she added, “I don’t know where the disconnect in foresight is happening. It’s an emergency that should have been dealt with when it started being an emergency.”

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke inhalation can damage lungs and make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as COVID; it can also increase the risk of heart problems, cause asthma attacks, and other health problems. This is especially true of groups that have preexisting health conditions, which are common among unsheltered people, particularly those who are chronically homeless.

“This smoke will damage these unhoused [people’s] lungs so badly that it will make them so much more vulnerable to COVID,” Richer said. “I don’t know if we are as a city being honest about the level of need and what is happening. … If all of our smoke shelters are being used, then we need to know where else to put people, because we can’t let people die.”

I asked the city and county officials at the press conference why, if the advice for housed people is to stay indoors even though most people lack high-tech air filtration systems, the city and county aren’t opening temporary spaces so that more people experiencing homelessness can at least get out of the smoke. Durkan responded, “We have around 5,000 people living outdoors in the region. …  I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that we have a plan to bring 5,000 people in immediately for the next few days.” (I wasn’t.) “We don’t logistically currently have that ability, but we are trying to reach those people that are most vulnerable [and] to open up these facilities that are very large to get the people who are most vulnerable inside.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for King County, said that if the air continues to worsen, the county will reassess and could recommend opening additional buildings. “We’re trying to balance two situations which are fraught with uncertainty [COVID-19 and wildfire smoke], but as the air quality decreases, the motivation to bring people indoors and the need to do that will increase.”

Despite Ongoing Heat and Smoke, Seattle Has No Plan for Cooling Centers or Smoke Shelters for Homeless

Wildfire smoke along I-5 near Corvallis, Oregon, September 8

By Erica C. Barnett

The city of Seattle has no current plans to open “smoke shelters” to protect people experiencing homelessness from the dangerous respiratory effects of smoke rolling in from wildfires in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, despite visibly smoky air that has burned eyes and left ashy residue on windowsills across Seattle for the past several days. Mayor Jenny Durkan has also declined to open cooling centers in recent weeks, on the grounds that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion or stroke, and hygiene-related illnesses that can crop up in hot weather.

On Monday, Durkan tweeted that Seattle residents should minimize their exposure to wildfire smoke by closing all their windows and doors, turning their central air conditioning to recirculating mode, and turning off fans that vent outside. The mayor’s tips included no suggestions for people living outdoors, who don’t have doors to close, much less air conditioning or even fans to mitigate temperatures that have soared into the 90s this summer, and are supposed to hit 91 this afternoon.

According to King County Public Health, the air over the last several days has fluctuated between “unhealthy for everyone” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”—those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, or a history of strokes. In previous years, the city has opened “smoke shelters” so that people living outdoors, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that make them sensitive to smoke inhalation, can escape the smoke and heat. Last year, for example, Durkan touted the installation of new HVAC systems at five city buildings used as shelters on smoky days, calling it a timely response to the “new normal” of climate change.

This year, however, the city has done nothing to provide such spaces. According to mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower, the city has been “reviewing its response options for potential wildfire smoke to ensure that they align with social distancing requirements.” Currently, Hightower adds, many of the buildings that the city would use as smoke shelters (or cooling centers, for that matter) are either closed (libraries, most community centers) or already being repurposed as shelters or day care facilities (Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall). Of course, the city has the authority to open buildings that are currently closed, including the senior centers, community centers, libraries, and other city buildings that are ordinarily used as temporary smoke shelters and cooling centers.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Hightower said the city is taking its cues from Seattle/King County Public Health about when and whether to open temporary spaces for people living outdoors to get out of the heat and smoke. “We are updating our operational plans should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast.” If that happens, Hightower said, the city has “access to a range of facilities if wildfire smoke conditions significantly deteriorated and became a greater health risk to vulnerable individuals’—for example, if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued “a prolonged red zone air quality forecast that went on for days/weeks and Public Health’s concerns for air quality outweighs the concern for the spread of COVID-19 which can be deadly to those at high risk.”

Homeless advocates, and at least one city council member, aren’t buying it. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the city should have risen to the challenge of providing safe, socially distanced shelter months ago, before wildfires and extreme heat added new urgency to the crisis. “The public health threats to people who are homeless of being exposed to extreme weather conditions are real,” she said, “and the threats to people being indoors with a highly transmissible disease are real. That doesn’t mean that local government gets a pass on figuring out how to help reduce risk and protect people.”

Homeless advocates have been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to keep people experiencing homelessness from infecting each other is to put them in individual rooms, a solution the Durkan administration has steadfastly resisted. Even failing that, Eisinger said the city needs to figure out a way to deal with extreme weather conditions before this winter, when flu season and cold, rainy weather will collide with the ongoing epidemic, making it even more

critical to get people into warm, hygienic spaces. “The Centers for Disease Control and our local and state public health departments are quite clear that individual rooms that allow people to be protected from exposure, as well as from the risk of contracting COVID-19 are advisable, effective, and should be increased,” Eisinger said.

On Wednesday, council member Teresa Mosqueda said she had just returned from a short walk and was coughing despite wearing an N95 mask, which filters out most smoke particulates. “I can’t imagine sleeping unsheltered” in the smoke, she said.

“We have hotels [and] motels sitting unoccupied with AC and individual rooms; we have tiny houses that are ready to be stood up,” Mosqueda said. “There is no excuse to not house more folks and use de-intensified shelter options to prevent people from getting sick from this smoke.”