For many years, Liz Walker has fought the uphill battle against wildfire smoke.
Her community in the North Cascades has suffered from some of the worst air quality in the world. Just this year, her nonprofit, Clean Air Methow, along with another local group painstakingly assembled more than 100 makeshift air purifiers — taping box fans to air filters — to distribute among locals.
With fires raging near Winthrop and the sun blotted out by smoke, she’s been waiting anxiously to hear any response to her grant proposal for funding another 250 homemade purifiers. So when the town’s mayor called her earlier this month to say that a Chicago company had heard about Winthrop’s predicament and was willing to donate 2,000 air purifiers, it was overwhelming news.
“I started crying,” Walker said. “And then I got to be the one to call these other organizations to help us get them into the hands of the most vulnerable folks. And every time I got to celebrate it again with them, I start to cry.”
On Wednesday and Thursday this week, a line of cars stretched for more than a mile in Winthrop to pick up the air purifiers donated by Instant Brands — an international kitchenware company that recently started building air purifiers. Company executives had read news coverage of Winthrop’s air quality being likened to Mordor in “Lord of the Rings” and decided to help. They chose to give 2,000 air purifiers, plus 2,000 replacement filters, because the company’s headquarters in Downers Grove, Ill., was roughly 2,000 miles away from Winthrop.
“We’re all connected, even 2,000 miles away,” said Tracy Fadden, the company’s vice president for marketing, who traveled to Winthrop for the event.
By early this week, three semi trucks filled with the company’s large model air purifier, the AP300 — made to clean a nearly 400-square-foot space — were being unloaded by forklift into “The Barn,” a venue and meeting hall in Winthrop.
The number of purifiers and filters donated, worth more than $600,000, far exceeded Winthrop’s population of some 400 people. While some balked at the number, Walker and others in town knew the need up and down the Methow Valley. Walker calculated that there were more than 7,000 residences in the area the donation could reach.
In recent weeks, the area has been inundated with thick smoke and a level of fine particle pollution that the Environmental Protection Agency describes as “very unhealthy” and “hazardous.” The National Weather Service noted that Winthrop’s air quality last month was the worst in the country, and possibly the world.
“We should be able to provide clean indoor air to approximately a third of homes and businesses in the valley, which is just phenomenal,” Walker said. “It’s been all consuming for several days, but it’s also been amazing because it just feels like every single person I talk to is like, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It’s so great.”
At the pickup point, volunteers from the local 4H group took shifts helping with distribution. Police were out directing traffic.
“I’m looking at this line about a half-mile long,” said Fadden, the marketing executive, while watching the air purifier pickup effort on Wednesday. “The community has come together in such an unbelievable way.” Before moving to Chicago, Fadden had lived in Seattle for four years, hiked in the North Cascades and regularly returns to the state — a place “near and dear to my heart,” she said.
About a dozen local organizations agreed to help distribute the air purifiers to those who couldn’t drive to the contactless pickup location. Those recipients include seniors in their homes; people served by the local food back; residents of the mobile home park; and school district families on free and reduced lunch programs.
“The town itself, just the people I’ve met, are absolutely incredible, the way they’ve come together to help one another out,” said Fadden.
With a warming planet, massive wildfires have exploded across the West year after year, and huge swaths of the country are being forced to adapt to smoky air.
Walker, whose background is in toxicology and who has a doctorate from the University of Washington, codesigned an anonymous survey with other researchers for those who pick up the air purifiers. They hope to gather data on what types of cooling and air cleaning systems residents currently have in their homes, as well as the physical and mental health effects of wildfire smoke.
“For people living in wildfire-smoke-prone areas, we should start to think about air purifiers as standard home safety equipment, the same way we think about carbon monoxide detectors or smoke alarms,” Walker said. “We know it’s going to get smoky. We know our homes are going to be filled with smoke. And these things are just front-line defenses and everyone should have access to the ability to make clean indoor air.”