Estom Yumeka Maidu Student Teaches DIY Air Filtration Techniques to Help Reservation Communities During Wildfire Season

Estom Yumeka Maidu Student Teaches DIY Air Filtration Techniques to Help Reservation Communities During Wildfire Season

Estom Yumeka Maidu Student Teaches DIY Air Filtration Techniques to Help Reservation Communities During Wildfire Season

January 17, 2023

By Robin Smuda, Climate Reporter Intern

Air Filtration
Reservation Communities
Wildfire Season

Wildfires affect all in their way, from the places burned as fuel to the areas filled with smoke. Across the western U.S., climate change is leading to warmer, drier conditions and contributing to longer, more active fire seasons. In the Great Basin and other parts of the western U.S., indoor air filtration during wildfire season has become a problem. Many houses have no particulate filtration systems, and this is especially true on reservations. Possible solutions can be expensive and materials can be hard to obtain, but Piercen Nguyen and his colleagues Meghan Collins and Jade Nguyen of DRI have a proven solution.


Piercen Nguyen, DRI workshop intern and member of Enterprise Rancheria, Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe, is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and became interested in the health impacts of wildfire smoke while working on a project for the Center for Genomic Medicine at DRI in Reno, Nev. Studying lung cell damage from prolonged episodes of wildfire smoke, he saw the physical effects of smoke on lung tissue.

According to Nguyen, the standard way of studying lung tissue involves using liquid smoke extracts introduced to the tissue. However, the team at DRI took a more realistic approach by “generating wildfire smoke and pumping it directly into an exposure chamber containing lung tissues,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen explains that they found that a type of cancer cell seemed to be resilient to wildfire smoke. They also found that wildfire smoke from different geographic areas has unique consequences on lung cell functions. This research had him thinking about the effects of smoke on communities. Back home in California, Nguyen’s community has been damaged by fires in the past, and his community members have been exposed to fire smoke heavily over time. People who rely on evaporative cooling systems have had to choose between overheating or breathing clean air, Nguyen said. Working with this project and seeing the effects of smoke on lung tissue sparked the idea to develop a usable solution for these communities.

Fire is an issue that hits very close to home for Nguyen. “There are tribal members, who have lost homes like, one person in my tribe lost their home twice to wildfires,” Nguyen said.


In the western U.S., fire has always been a part of life, but decades of fire suppression have led to unhealthy fuel buildups, and changes in climate such as increased drought and heat are contributing to longer and more active fire seasons. These effects of climate change touch the whole region. Wildfire smoke is harsh and dangerous for communities even if a fire is not threatening them. Communities have an exacerbated problem of poor air quality in these times, and some people need extra air filtration equipment for their homes.

Tools like the AirNow map show the dangers of fire and smoke in real-time. And regions like Northern Nevada have issues with fire danger and pollution from larger fires in Western areas. Recently the danger of this smoke has grown and stayed hazardous during summer and fall.

As seen in the graphics below, EPA air quality data from the summer and fall seasons of 2020 and 2021 in the Reno and Douglas County areas of Nevada show PM 2.5 reached “moderate” to “hazardous” levels for longer than any other period on record. PM2.5 is particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and is generated by various sources including wildfire smoke.

air quality data in reno

A tile plot generated from the EPA website shows a long period of “moderate” to “hazardous” air quality in Reno, Nev. during the summer and fall of 2020 and 2021. These were the most severe periods of poor air quality on record for this region, dating back to 1999. 

Data Source: EPA.

air quality data in douglas

In Douglas County, Nev., PM2.5 data has only been collected regularly since 2013, but patterns support what has been observed in Reno. Residents of Douglas County experienced long periods of “moderate” to “hazardous” air quality during late summer and fall of 2020 and 2021.

Data Source: EPA.


Tribal housing infrastructure is very susceptible to issues like wildfire and smoke. Standing buildings are usually old designs that can have issues like lead paint and toxic flooring. They can be manufactured homes or trailers that are long past expected use. Elements like extreme cold and heat waves are an issue throughout the Great Basin, but many reservation homes are only equipped with woodfire stoves for heating, and swamp coolers, window units, or nothing for cooling.

On the Stewart colony of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, most homes have nothing or swamp coolers for cooling air.

“So, people have to choose between either dealing with the heat or if it’s smokey outside, you know, just dealing with the smoke,” Nguyen said.

Using only low-cost materials that are easily found at a home improvement store like Home Depot, Nguyen learned how to make a simple air filtration system alongside the swamp coolers that were built into many reservation homes.

The do-it-yourself (DIY) filter system has been around a while, Nguyen remarked. The type of system he learned to build has been shown to be both effective and safe by the U.S. EPA {US, 2022, Research on DIY Air Cleaners to Reduce Wildfire Smoke Indoors}. The cost is under $50 and uses a box fan, cardboard, tape, and two air filters.

This design was made and chosen for keeping cost and complexity low. We also talked about manufactured air purifiers. Nguyen said most will work for smoke, just one must research the filter and have money for the cost.


The price and availability of air filters are major issues for rural Tribal Communities, due to the distance many people would need to travel to buy supplies and the economics of the areas. This means many communities are staying at risk of wildfire smoke (and wildfires themselves).

For the last year, the researchers have been doing workshops on different reservations in Northern Nevada and Northern California to teach people how to build low-cost filtration systems for their homes. They received a grant in May of 2022 from the DRI Lander Endowment that allows them to provide the materials to these communities for free. So far, they have held 10 workshops that have helped 93 people build their own air filter systems.

In this workshop, DRI researchers provided materials to make a DIY air filter that utilized two filters to make a wedge shape. However, Nguyen adds that in a pinch, you can simply use a single filter fastened to a box fan and still get effective results. He adds that for safety reasons, it is crucial to use a box fan built in 2012 or later as manufacturer safety regulations have since been updated.

Watching a workshop at the Washoe Tribe’s Community Center at Carson Colony on September 15, 2022, the process was very easy.

Nguyen showed the group how to build an air filter using a box fan, a decent size cardboard sheet cut from the fan’s box (~1.5ft. on each side), two MERV 13 filters, and a few yards of Duct Tape or similar brand of tape. Triangular pieces were cut from the cardboard, and then all was assembled. So simple that personal touches were naturally added: showing the graphic from the box or not; what tape color, and where the cable should come out for their house.




tapping air filters together

Step 1: Tape two filters together using duct tape.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

bending air filters into triangle

Step 2. Stand the filters on end, and tape them to a box fan in a triangular arrangement.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

fitting cardboard on top of filters

Step 3: Cut a triangular piece of cardboard to fit the top of the air filtration system. Attach with tape. 

Credit: Robin Smuda.


Whether you live in a house, apartment, or another type of housing, if your home does have an air filtration system, it is important to know that filter quality is important. Filters are labeled by particles filtered: one is weakest, and 20 is strongest. The EPA recommends a better filter for filtering out smoke. However, you cannot just add thicker filters to your wall AC unit or central air system because that could damage the system. Additionally, two other rating systems are commonly used to classify filter quality: MPR and FPR. In these cases, it is recommended to use FPR 10 or MPR 1500 or better.

Filters work physically collecting certain size particulates, and filtration systems are designed for specific filter sizes. When we inspected the filters in our homes, Nguyen and I both found that our filters were the weakest possible – like looking through a sheet of paper — and probably not helping effectively during fire season.

There are a few different filter types available. HEPA filters are the gold standard and can remove most smoke particulates. However, availability can be an issue even in large population centers. Nguyen explained that during periods of heavy smoke, places like Home Depot run out and he has had to try and order cases that are on backorder.

Air filters also need to be replaced regularly. According to Nguyen, they should be replaced every three to six months, or possibly more often during periods of heavy smoke. He recommends checking air filters every month during fire season, and potentially replacing them monthly if you notice a visual change such as discoloration from the particulates being filtered.

“People have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the workshops,” Nguyen said. He added that several people expressed their excitement to use the DIY air purifiers to improve the air quality for both themselves and loved ones who may experience conditions like asthma or COPD. Workshop attendees also remarked to Nguyen and colleagues how helpful the DIY air purifiers were in combating hazardous downwind air quality resulting from the Northern California Mosquito wildfire event in the months of September and October 2022.

air filtration workshop in classroom

Piercen Nguyen, member of Enterprise Rancheria, Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe, teaches a workshop on air quality and air filtration.

Credit: Provided by Piercen Nguyen.


Robin Smuda is a Wašiw person and a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Currently, they are a reporter intern with Native Climate at DRI and studying Cultural Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Robin is planning on studying Ethno-Archeology and Indigenous Studies in grad school, with a focus on the transition from pre- and post-contact in the Great Basin.

Restoring our relationship with hímu (willow) requires human interaction rather than protection

Restoring our relationship with hímu (willow) requires human interaction rather than protection

Restoring our relationship with hímu (willow) requires human interaction rather than protection

SEPT 19, 2022

By Robin Smuda, Climate Reporter Intern

Native Climate

dá∙bal (dah-ball; big sage), ťá∙gɨm (tdah-goom; pinion pine), and hímu (him-oo; willow) are why Wá∙šiw (Washo) live here.

In between the high lush landscape of dáɁaw (Lake Tahoe) and the expanse of arid landscapes within the Great Basin, the Wá∙šiw have lived here and have lived with this community for countless generations. The continuation of life for the Wá∙šiw is based around plants that always stand: dá∙bal, ťá∙gɨm, and hímu. With them, survival is always possible, and they can help us understand our problems. But current viewpoints that prioritize protection over interaction with the environment are at odds with strong traditional relationships between the Wá∙šiw people and these plants.

washoe lands map

Wá∙šiw traditional homelands (shown in light and dark green) are located in the mountains and valleys around dáɁaw (Lake Tahoe), along what is now the California-Nevada border. Today, most Wá∙šiw people live in colonies and communities of the Carson Valley of Nevada (shown in black).

Credit: Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.


hímu, particularly the willow that grows in the valleys around the Lake Tahoe region (“valley hímu,” also known as coyote willow) is especially important to Wá∙šiw basket weaving for tradition and quality material. Baskets can be woven from most materials, but quality Wá∙šiw basketry wants and sometimes requires strong valley hímu for its strength and clean color.

Healthy valley hímu can grow long stalks independently, but human encouragement is the traditional way. Traditional growth patterns were propagated by planting hímu, pruning them, having fire consume or interact with them, shaping them to provide shade from hot sun-filled days, and more. The continued handling leads the plant to grow long and strong.

“My great aunts, the Smokey Sisters, and other elder basket weavers like Marie Kizer and Florine Conway, harvested and tended to the willow in Dresslerville along the river and surrounding areas,” said Melanie Smokey, Wá∙šiw basket weaver. “They would talk to the willow and were proud of this area. They graciously accepted visitors who asked to harvest willow in the area. Once everyone gathered their bounty, then they would all go to the Senior Center where a pre-planned good meal was served in honor of the guests. They were proud of their Wá∙šiw má∙š, their lands. Their baskets didn’t just hang on a wall, their baskets were used to gather, to sift pinenut and acorn flour in, and to cook in. They wanted basketry to continue so they taught and encouraged young people.”

Without the human touch, knots, bends, and eyes (from buds of branches) can become common. These become hindrances for collection of the long stalks that are necessary for a strong product and create weaknesses in the weaving.

Valley hímu has become the main variant of willow used for weaving, despite other types being readily available, because of the ability to grow tall and straight. These willows create the structure of the basket. hímu that grows in the mountains (“mountain hímu”) grows low and bunched, providing shorter stalks that make for weaker baskets, which last for one season at most.

Mountain hímu that grows in the Tahoe Basin has been used for fishing traps or twine, and temporary burden baskets, explained Smokey. The hímu in Northern Nevada’s arid low valleys is stronger, straighter, and necessary for complete and keepable baskets.

The long stalks of valley hímu create baskets of maximum strength that hold together under use of fire for roasting or carrying heavy objects for years. The feeling and fact of strength from valley hímu is most apparent in baby boards, which carry the next generation, make the child feel safe, and last for decades.

hímu burden basket on top of table

A ~100 year old Wá∙šiw hímu burden basket that was used over 2 lifetimes. Basket was on display as part of Wa She Shu It’ Deh at Meeks Bay, courtesy of Melba Rakow.

Credit: Robin Smuda.


Valley hímu on Wá∙šiw lands are under stress from drought and heat. hímu that is tall and healthy enough for weaving is practically nonexistent in the wild in Carson Valley, according to local weavers. Wá∙šiw weavers have harvested usable stalks in limited amounts from the Nature Conservancy preserve at River Fork Ranch in the Carson Valley, but finding quality hímu in other areas is so difficult that gatherers protect locations from many people out of respect, for the land is not a guarantee.

“…my cousin Sue goes clear to Oregon to get hers because this lady grows it for her in her yard,” says Melba Rakow, Wá∙šiw Elder and employee of the Culture and Language Resources Department of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

In addition to drought and heat, the unnaturally long and powerful fires from years of current forest management practices and climate change harm valley hímu as they tear through the landscape. hímu is burned down, damaged, or in some cases preemptively destroyed with herbicide as they are seen as an agricultural weed and potential fire hazard.

Changes in the timing of the warm season may also be impacting the timing of hímu flowering. Wá∙šiw weavers have noticed that the timing of flowering is becoming more unpredictable. Analysis of weather data by Paige Johnson and Kyle Bocinsky from the Native Climate team found that in Minden, Nev., the first warm spell of the year (measured as 7 consecutive days where the minimum daily temperature rose above 28oF) has been happening earlier in the year. Their data shows that the first warm spell is occurring about 2.8 days earlier every decade, which amounts to nearly 3 weeks over the last 70 years.

graph of 7-day warm spells

The earliest 7-day warm spells recorded each year at a weather station in Minden, Nev. 

Credit: Paige Johnson and Kyle Bocinsky, Native Climate.


Some of the problems facing Wá∙šiw today are the ability to restart traditional valley hímu growing practices and access to land, water, and money needed to propagate them. Many of the best areas for hímu growing are controlled by resource production and natural conservation mindsets. Most parks and natural areas in the Carson Valley are designed to keep nature in its pure state. Ranches that surround the Carson River and lusher areas of the Carson Valley are focused on livestock production and control large areas of land and water.

Working and living with the land gets us to a healthier environment, says Herman Filmore, Director of Culture/Language Resources Department of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. The plants and land are sovereign beings, and we live with them, which includes human interaction and use. He explains that the idea of untamed wilderness Indigenous peoples lived in is detrimentally wrong. Plants were harvested and propagated on purpose. Landscapes were managed and areas were cleared. The difference is that human needs were not the only concerns.

Campsites were used and plants were cared for, but not always, as rest is important for the plants and the landscape, says Rakow. The overworking of land is something she has seen in her life. Ranchers in the Carson Valley used to have cattle graze one area and let that area heal for years before using the land again. Today, this is much less common.

Valley hímu near a creek

Valley hímu growth near an unkept creek. Note that the majority of the branches are broken or twisted and unusable for weaving. 

Credit: Robin Smuda.


These are long-standing problems, but solutions are underway. For the first time in a generation, valley hímu is now being worked with on Wá∙šiw land in mass. It is a return and reimagining of what was done before. Rhiana Jones and the Washoe Tribe’s Environmental Department have been working on a pilot project to grow hímu that will be accessible to the whole community. She and others have propagated hímu stalks on the Dresslerville Reservation in the Carson Valley using traditional methods of fire and pruning to encourage great-quality stalks.

While efforts to have valley hímu in our community again are growing stronger, much still needs to be done in order to restore our relationship with this plant and the landscape as a whole. hímu faces many of the same challenges that we do — less water, intense heat, destruction of the environment, and out-of-control fire. They are resilient, as they always have been. It falls on people to become reconnected and move forward with them for generations to come.

hímu cradle boards with roasting pans, baskets, and a cedar net

hímu cradle boards, 3 used roasting pans, lidded baskets, and a traditionally made cedar net on display at Wa She Shu It’ Deh at Meeks Bay courtesy of the Culture and Language Resources Department of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

Credit: Robin Smuda.

Robin Smuda is a Wašiw person and a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Currently, they are a reporter intern with Native Climate at DRI and studying Cultural Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Robin is planning on studying Ethno-Archeology and Indigenous Studies in grad school, with a focus on the transition from pre- and post-contact in the Great Basin.