‘Spokane Beat the Heat’ program to create safety protocols for future heatwaves

SPOKANE, Wash. — As we approach the summer, a newly introduced program aims to mitigate the threat of extreme heat in the Inland Northwest.

Gonzaga University’s Center for Climate, Society and the Environment just launched Spokane Beat the Heat, a multi-year program to identify, assess and implement local strategies to reduce the risk of urban heat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped fund the project by including Spokane in the 2022 Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign. This campaign will map out “urban heat islands” this summer to increase residents’ safety.

The effort to join the campaign is a result of the 20 fatalities during last summer’s “heat dome” over the Inland Northwest. Brian G. Henning, director of Gonzaga’s Climate Center, sees Heat Watch as part one of a multiphase project to address extreme heat in the region.

“This will allow us to obtain sensitive temperature equipment and then work with ordinary folks, in what is often called citizen science, to go around town driving a route and measuring the heat in different areas,” Henning said.  “CAPA Strategies will then take that data and create high-resolution maps of ‘urban heat islands’ or areas with higher temperatures, often due to less tree canopy, such as in northeast Spokane. The goal is to use these maps to inform planning, such as cooling shelters and tree plantings.”

Ultimately, Spokane Beat the Heat aims to help create protocols for extreme heat similar to those for tsunamis, tornadoes or hurricanes. The Spokane City Council Sustainability Action Subcommittee, The Lands Council, 350 Spokane and KXLY have also joined the Urban Heat Island Mapping effort.

“It’s a fascinating coalition of higher education, municipal government, environmental and climate nonprofits, and local media,” Henning said. “Chief KXLY meteorologist Kris Crocker has generously offered to help recruit citizens live on air during her weather forecast segments. And that will involve sending folks to the Climate Center to sign up.”

Last summer was the first time Spokane has opened cooling shelters for the homeless or residents without air conditioning.

“We are hoping that the result from this mapping campaign is going to have a direct line to people who can make policy changes, such as citing cooling centers and clean air centers for summer,” Beat the Heat’s project coordinator Karli Honebein said.

Temperatures hit 109 °F, and long periods of unhealthy air from wildfire smoke only added to the problem.

“These health impacts are not evenly distributed in our community,” Henning wrote. “Poorer neighborhoods have fewer trees, which makes effects worse. We fear, but cannot yet demonstrate, that some neighborhoods are more severely impacted by extreme heat and air quality.”

With readings from proper equipment, Spokane Beat the Heat hopes to document the effects.

“The need is dire,” Henning said. “When temperatures hit 110 degrees, people start dying. And it is the poor and vulnerable who die first. The Gonzaga Climate Center is committed to doing its small part to help us prepare for the harsher world we are creating.”

Anyone interested in working on climate changes and extreme heat in Spokane are welcome to join the Center for Climate, Society and the Environment. They are looking for more volunteers to do more data collection for mapping and education this summer.

You can learn more about Spokane Beat the Heat here.

READ: Fires, drought, and heat cost the Northwest billions in 2021