EPA funding supports new center for wildfire smoke research

Articles first appeared in Around the O on April 11.

Oregon’s U.S Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have secured $800,000 in funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to launch the Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice at the University of Oregon.

The new center will conduct applied research to support community efforts to ensure that Oregonians, particularly vulnerable individuals and households, are better prepared to manage poor air quality from wildfire smoke.

“At the University of Oregon, we are so excited to launch the Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice with the goal of supporting Oregon communities to become more resilient in the face of increasing wildfire smoke,” said Cassandra Moseley, research professor and vice provost of academic operations and strategy at the UO, who is leading the new center. “We will conduct research driven by community needs and support the growing collaborative networks of practitioners and researchers working to improve conditions for vulnerable community members.”

The funding secured by Merkley and Wyden comes at a pivotal time, as wildfires are becoming an increasingly serious public health issue in Oregon and across the Western United States. Data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality shows unhealthy air quality days attributable to wildfire smoke have sharply increased since 2015. Smoke drifts far from the flames of a wildfire, affecting air quality tens or even hundreds of miles away. And research has shown that even low-level exposure to wildfire smoke for extended time periods can damage the lungs and exacerbate existing respiratory conditions.

“For a long time, we thought of managing wildfire as managing flames and forests,” Moseley said. “But as wildfires have gotten bigger, and we better understand the health impacts of smoke,” smoke has become an increasingly urgent point of focus.

“There's a lot of inequity in the way people encounter smoke,” Moseley added, saying the effects are particularly great on people with asthma or other respiratory diseases, as well as unhoused people, low-income people, and those who work outdoors. Vulnerable groups are often least able to control their own smoke exposure, underscoring the importance of community-level interventions, she said.

The Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice will be a hub for conducting research and sharing information between practitioners, researchers and others. Together, the center and its partners will produce actionable ways Oregon communities, local governments and agencies can better prepare for wildfire smoke events.

Initial research will focus on helping communities and households adapt to living with smoke, improving public messaging around smoke, and evaluating the effectiveness of past preparation and response during smoke events to inform future actions and policies.

While the center itself is new, it builds directly on longstanding areas of strengths for the UO, as well as valuable partnerships with federal and state agencies, local governments, and other research universities.

Moseley is an expert on natural resource policy and specifically the way wildfire management and national forest management impact rural communities. She and her colleagues in the center, including Ecosystem Workforce Program director Heidi Huber-Stearns, bring a wealth of experience doing community-engaged research and policy work via the workforce program and other UO programs.

The center also will draw on the expertise in natural resource-related communications found in the School of Journalism and Communication’s Center for Science Communication Research, as well as community planning work done by the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement.

“We’re building on a long history of work in community well-being to say, how can we use research to support communities in their planning, preparation and response to smoke?” Moseley said.

The team is already doing smoke-related work in communities near Eugene, such as Oakridge. The new funding for the center will allow the team to take this kind of community-based work even further. As part of the UO’s new Institute for Resilient Organizations, Communities, and Environments, the center is well-situated to address the many intersecting ways that wildfire smoke impacts Oregonians.

“Every summer, smoke plagues our communities for longer and longer periods of time, harming Oregonians’ health and livelihoods,” Wyden said. “I am proud to have fought to secure funding to further study how communities large and small can mitigate the harmful effects of wildfire smoke.”

“Nearly every Oregonian has in some way experienced the growing threat that wildfires pose to our lives, livelihoods, and health,” said Merkley, chair of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which funded the grant that supports the center. “This critical funding for the University of Oregon’s Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice will help to expand our understanding and improve our abilities to mitigate and reduce the harmful effects wildfire smoke has on Oregonians across the state.”

By Laurel Hamers, University Communications