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DRI and NDEP provide air monitoring and smoke education in rural Nevada communities

A man and a woman standing with their backs toward a brick wall and smiling for a photo.
Natalie Van Hoozer
KUNR Public Radio
Danilo Dragoni (left) with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and Kristin VanderMolen with the Desert Research Institute worked together to expand air quality monitoring and identify rural community information needs related to wildfire smoke.

Rural communities often see severe impacts from wildfire smoke and a lack of information when wildfires strike Northern Nevada.

A couple of years ago, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) came together to help provide rural communities with air quality data.

The first step in helping these rural Nevada communities was understanding what the lack of information meant, said Kristin VanderMolen, an assistant research professor at DRI who studies climate impacts and adaptation at the local level.

“Decisions that have to be made around outdoor worker health, youth athletics. Business owners, [asking] ‘Can I keep my door open? Do I need to close my door?’ Older adults, [wondering] ‘Can I go out and have a walk? Can I go out and work in my garden?’ ” she said.

DRI worked with the NDEP to create customized, low-cost air sensors for rural areas of Nevada. VanderMolen and her colleagues then developed an air quality data interpretation guide for organizations like the emergency management offices in Storey and Pershing counties. This allows emergency managers to know how to use the data from the air sensors to advise their communities on smoky days.

A vertical pole along a rocky dirt hill with boxes of equipment attached at the stop stands.
Photo courtesy of the Desert Research Institute
An air quality monitoring station in Storey County, Nev., built as part of the DRI and NDEP joint project.

The project also equipped these rural organizations with informational materials to share with their communities, including on social media.

While that information is helpful, people might not be completely receptive to wildfire smoke education, said Sean Burke, the emergency manager for Pershing County and the fire chief for Grass Valley, Nevada. He said air quality hasn’t been that bad in the area for a couple of years.

“I think there’s some alert weariness, I would call it. You have to be creative in telling people why this is something they ought to care about,” Burke said.

That’s why the teams at DRI and NDEP worked with Burke in Pershing County, the office of emergency management in Storey County, and the National Weather Service Office in Elko. By talking with community boards and places like senior centers, they developed physical materials for those who are less likely to go online.

One is a color-coded, large paper dial with an arrow that goes from green to red, showing the air quality at rural senior centers. According to the Rural Health Information Hub, manual tools have been effective in other rural areas of the Mountain West, including a color-coded flag system used by the community library in Peck, Idaho.

In rural Northern Nevada, wildfire smoke has been largely absent this year, so the usefulness of these sensors is yet to be fully tested, said Danilo Dragoni, who oversees NDEP’s Bureau of Air Quality Planning. However, they are actively running and air quality can be checked any time on the NDEP website.

The project is designed as a pilot that can benefit the region, VanderMolen said.

“We’re learning that there isn’t necessarily a lot of understanding right now about information needs around wildfire smoke risk,” she said. “The more that we can learn about what those information needs are for different publics, the better we can serve them through projects like this.”

As similar initiatives take place in other rural areas, researchers can see what resources they’re able to share, so that communities don’t have to face wildfire smoke on their own.

But this isn’t the first time air quality sensors have been used in rural Nevada. In 2018, NDEP loaned low-cost sensors to communities, which, at that time, weren’t adequately served by existing monitors.

“We realized that these sensors provided a limited range of options. Many of them required wireless and a power line. Not all communities, especially rural communities, can have wireless and power at the same time,” Dragoni said.

The new monitors constructed by DRI and NDEP use solar power and cell phone reception.

As part of KUNR’s participation in the Advancing Democracy program, this is a solution-oriented story, looking at responses to the issue of wildfire smoke and how effective they are. 

Part one of this project looked at a collaborative air monitoring effort for urban communities of Northern Nevada.

Natalie is a freelance journalist and translator based in Reno, Nevada, who reports in English and Spanish. She also works for the nonprofit SembraMedia, supporting independent, digital Spanish-language media in the United States.
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