Hoopa tribe leads battle against smoke's ill effects

Last summer when the smoke rolled into the Hoopa Valley National Indian Reservation near Humboldt, members of the tribal leadership responded quickly.

They evacuated their most vulnerable residents to the coast, and purchased special air filters to put in homes. They opened two public clean air facilities, installing air conditioners and air filters so people could have a place to escape the bad air. They established an emergency information hot line. They extended the hours at the community clinic.

They got the county, the governor and the president to issue declarations of emergency, so that FEMA could help cover some of the quarter-million dollars these measures had cost.

Despite the Hoopa tribe taking the initiative, a large number of people in the Hoopa Valley still got sick from last summer's smoke, said Rod Mendes, director of the office of emergency services for the tribe. Many complained of headaches and burning eyes. Albuterol inhaler refills increased 85 percent over the previous year. Some continue to suffer ill effects today.

The Hoopa tribe, and Mendes in particular, has emerged as a leading advocate on smoke's effects on public health. Members of the tribe have lobbied everyone, from the state legislature and the National Congress of American Indians to FEMA and the U.S. Forest Service, pushing them to acknowledge the problem.

Mendes says some people in Hoopa have been sick ever since the Megram fire filled the valley with smoke for months in the fall of 1999. He believes policies need to change to protect people in the Hoopa tribe - and across the north state - from the impact of wildfire smoke.

Partly, he insists, forest fires need to be suppressed more aggressively when there are people living nearby, especially early in the fire season. That's important even if lives and property aren't immediately threatened, he said.

"(Government agencies) will do everything in their power to justify what they're doing," he said. "But if you're making people sick, how do you justify what you're doing?"

Back in 1999, after the Megram fire, Dr. Eva Smith, medical director of the K'ima:w Medical Center in Hoopa Valley, did some research with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the short term, she found medical visits for respiratory problems had increased by 52 percent over the previous year. She also found that many people did not want to evacuate, because the fire camps brought employment opportunities to a remote and impoverished community. Instead, one of the most effective protective measures seemed to be the distribution of high-efficiency particulate air - or HEPA - cleaners to vulnerable households.

In 2008, the tribal leadership dipped into its own coffers and sought help from other tribes to purchase and distribute at least 400 of those filters, at a cost of about $100 apiece.

Whether nearby counties will be able to take similar measures to protect vulnerable residents in the future is less clear. The tribe has more resources at its disposal than many counties, said Ann Lindsay, Humboldt County's health officer and president of the statewide Health Officers Association.

"My hat's off to the tribes," she said. "They really have a level of expectations that their tribe will take care of them, and they had the resources. They're like exemplary, but they set the standards higher than we can meet in the public sector."

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