Free air purifiers for high-risk wildfire zones

The summer of 2020 broke records in terms of wildfires in Oregon. Flames destroyed approximately 4,000 homes and 1 million acres of land. Smoke entered homes and lungs in every corner of the state.

photograph of wildfires across the horizon

Oregon lawmakers responded by funding air purifiers for people in communities where wildfires are common.

The air purifiers make up a tiny slice of a $220 million investment in wildfire prevention and response planning, power plant safety, new building code standards and more.

For the air purifiers, the plan is underway.

With $4.7 million, Oregon has purchased 5,000 new home air purifiers. The purifiers will be distributed to selected homes, primarily along the California border where communities historically experience 20 or more days of “unhealthy” air from wildfire smoke per year.

To further reach people who most need protection against wildfire smoke in high-risk regions, the state identified Oregon Health Plan (OHP) members who have been diagnosed with chronic heart, lung or cerebral vascular (strokes) conditions. These conditions can be worsened by exposure to wildfire smoke.

The initiative is a first for Oregon Health Authority (OHA).

“We’re very good at distributing things like wheelchairs and medicines, things we can track through a doctor’s prescription, but this is completely different,” said Nathan Roberts, OHA’s Medicaid/OHP programs unit manager.

photo of a home air purifier
Air purifier being distributed to at-risk residents in common wildfire zones
(approx. 20 inches tall)

Getting the devices into homes is one of the hardest parts, and the state is getting help from five Coordinated Care Organizations (CCOs) in the targeted wildfire risk zones. The CCOs are warehousing the devices and distributing them to people in their regions.

“OHP’s relationship with Coordinated Care Organizations (CCO) has been invaluable,” Roberts said. “They’re arranging for all that in a way that makes sense for their regions. It’s their community, so whether the people pick up the devices at the warehouse or the CCO arranges for home delivery, the CCOs are doing all of that work. And they’re doing it without charging the state additional money. That’s just a huge help.”

One of the CCOs is Jackson Care Connect in Jackson County, which is warehousing 400 air purifiers and anticipates a second batch soon.

“Jackson County residents have been deeply impacted by wildfire smoke in recent years,” said Jennifer Lind, chief executive officer of Jackson Care Connect. “This new state resource will help some of our region’s most vulnerable residents breathe a little easier. We’re happy to partner with the state and leverage the infrastructure that we’ve built in our community over the last decade to support the rollout of these resources.”

Jackson Care Connect and the other CCOs will begin distributing the first 5,000 air purifiers in a couple weeks. An additional 5,000 air purifiers will be purchased and distributed to additional homes, a process that will either begin later this summer, or next year.

“I’m excited because we’ve traditionally been an agency that pays for sick care, and this is totally different,” Roberts said. “This is about helping people stay well so they don’t have to go to the doctor, which is a better model for health care. We haven’t entirely cracked that nut yet, but this is a step in the right direction.”

As climate change makes wildfire seasons more severe, a common question is:  What will the wildfire season be like this year? The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center provides issues and updates.

One of the most effective ways to protect yourself is to avoid being outdoors when it’s smoky. It’s also important to keep indoor air clean, especially for people who are sensitive to the health effects of smoke.

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