With climate change, wildfires and heat waves are becoming increasingly dangerous. In many communities, they occur at the same time in summer months, putting the public’s health at even greater risk. And children, which are one of the most vulnerable populations, are being impacted and having to stay home from school.
During these climate events, “can we open school buildings as shelters and safe community spaces?” asked Abby Hall, senior advisor for local and regional planning at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), during the Living Future conference in Washington, D.C.
Hall, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, works in the EPA’s Office of Policy, where she focuses on local and regional planning and leads projects that involve urban design, landscape architecture, and sustainable architecture. She also leads a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support “better disaster recovery and climate adaptation planning.”
As part of this partnership with FEMA, Hall and her collaborators are developing county-wide hazard mitigation plans and pilot programs that increase resilience to extreme heat and wildfires in Oregon and Arizona.
“When we think of cooling centers, we may think of malls, movie theaters, faith-based facilities, community centers, parks, recreation centers, schools, and libraries,” Hall said. Many of these places can also serve as clean air centers. “These places can be respites, resilience hubs.”
For this effort, the EPA is focusing on schools in particular, and how to improve their infrastructure so they can serve as both cooling and clean air centers. The EPA is looking at schools because kids are among the most groups most impacted by heat and smoke. And if they need stay home from school, a parent also needs to stay home, causing ripple effects in communities.
Landscape architecture firm Spackman Mossop Michaels is consulting with the EPA for the multi-year effort. “We are helping focus attention on the priorities when we talk about vulnerabilities. There are lots of needs, but not enough resources,” said Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with the firm.
The planning team, which also includes Glumac, an engineering firm that is a subsidiary of Tetra Tech, is partnering with pilot communities in Kittitas and Multnomah counties in Oregon, and Pima County in Arizona, which includes tribal lands.
The team has conducted stakeholder meetings, run population and risk assessments, and developed action plans that function as “playbooks.”
What will also come out of the process with pilot communities is an “intentionally simple tool any community can use to identify threats and vulnerable populations, determine level of access to cooling and clean air centers, and identify the feasibility and costs of updating school facilities,” Bullock said.
In each community, both extreme heat or wildfire smoke were top issues, but one was slightly higher priority than the other.
In Multnomah County, which includes Portland, the team first explored: Where are the big impacts? Where are the most vulnerable?
Age is an important factor in determining vulnerability. Both children and older adults are at greater risk. The team also looked for communities with high percentages of asthma cases, people who work outside, and those with income below $50,000 per year.
The next level of analysis then meant to answer the questions: “How can we serve the most number of people? Where can we have the biggest bang for the buck?” Bullock said.
The team looked at census blocks and transit access to find the schools in the hottest locations, near the most numbers of vulnerable people, and where there was the highest population densities.
Then, an additional layer of analysis examined: “Which schools would be the easiest to upgrade? Which have the capacity for assembling large number of people, beyond students?”
Across western states, there have been increasingly “hot and dry summers.” This weather creates conditions for “worst case scenarios — a super hot day with wildfire smoke,” Bullock said.
“And while heat and smoke require different solutions, children are the common factors,” Hall said.
Children face greater risks from heat because “their bodies are smaller, so it’s harder for them to cool down. They forget to drink water. They are less able to adapt to extreme heat because of physiological differences,” Hall explained.
And smoke is also a greater danger for them because “children continue to develop their lungs and have narrower airways. They take twice as many breaths as adults. They are lower to the ground where particulate matter rests. And they have more permeable skin.”
The risks facing children, older adults, and outdoor workers are worsened by systemic inequities. Previously redlined neighborhoods are hotter because of historic lack of investment in trees and green spaces. And these communities also often have lower levels of air conditioning in homes.
And in communities comprised of diverse cultures, “there may be different ways to cool bodies, based on age, ethnicity, or whether someone works outside.” So historic inequities and diversity must also be factored in.
Whether communities are dealing with heat or smoke, there are health risks for the entire population. Extreme heat can lead to heat stroke and cardiovascular, respiratory, and kidney disorders. Smoke can create eye, respiratory, and cardiovascular problems and exacerbate diseases. And asthma is worsened by smoke.
For children in school, heat and smoke also have significant impacts on learning ability. Studies demonstrate that test scores go down in warmer classrooms or when there are wildfires. And asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism in schools. “Reducing these impacts is really part of the business case for schools. Test scores are how they measure success,” Hall said.
The conversation then focused on how the pilot programs may help create national guidelines on heat and smoke for schools. “When should sports be cancelled? When should schools be closed? We need to do more work there,” Hall said.
The pilot programs will also offer best practices on how to upgrade HVAC systems and better prepare schools, teachers, and the community.
In many Pacific Northwest communities, air conditioning is rare because it hasn’t been needed. But with climate change, there is now a need to address increasingly common summer temperatures over 90 degrees. “Most of Portland, Oregon’s schools don’t have air conditioning,” Bullock said. “Where will they find the resources to upgrade?”
The analysis created by the EPA, Spackman Mossop Michaels, and Glumac also looks “beyond the HVAC” to roofs, campus streetscapes, tree canopies, and transportation systems as solutions.
“Our message is that schools are a safe place. Keep your children in school,” Hall said.