Homeless in Reno feel the impact of wildfire smoke

Kevin Smith, a Reno homeless man, says the recent smoke makes it hard for him to breathe. / Photo by Melissa McMorran


At first glance, Bill Jones looks like a traveler. He has a hefty army backpack, compression wraps around his legs, a camouflage jacket, a wood walking stick, and a long beard. Jones has been homeless in Reno, Nev. for 13 years, only escaping twice – once to Phoenix, Ariz. and another time to Pittsburgh, Pa.

Jones also has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), one of the most common lung diseases, making it difficult to breathe. He says the recent smoke in Reno from the sprawling wildfires in California – along with being outside with nowhere to go – has only made it more difficult.

“It was very hard to breathe, and the only place I could really escape the smoke was going to the library during the day,” Jones said. “During the night it was rough though, my eyes were burning and I couldn’t breathe.”

The city of Reno has been under a cloud of haze since Aug. 11 when wind brought smoke from the American Fire near Auburn, Calif. After the wind shifted, Reno was struck again by more smoke from the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park.

Washoe County Air Quality Management Division measures pollutants constantly, brings the data back to their office, ensures numbers are accurate, and generates their index numbers. For the wildfire smoke, the pollutant PM2.5 has been actively measured to calculate if the air is unhealthy.

“One of the problems with wildfire smoke is that it is made up of fine particulate matter that bypasses our natural defense mechanisms, such as our nose or throat, and it gets very deep into our respiratory system,” said Daniel K. Inouye, the branch chief for monitoring and planning in the district’s division of air quality management.

Kevin Smith* has been trying to improve his life by attending meetings at the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission and taking classes at Truckee Meadows Community College. However, after being evicted from an apartment he shared with friends, he was left on the streets in direct line of the smoke.

“It’s really bad, and I have hay fever so all of this smoke makes it hard for me to breathe, plus my eyes get red and I keep coughing,” Smith said.

Inouye said that if people can smell the smoke, then it is at a level that is affecting them and they need to reduce exposure by going inside; if it is necessary to be outside, Inouye recommends doing less strenuous activity. While many of the homeless have been taking refuge from the smoke in libraries, homeless shelters and other buildings, not all are so lucky.

*Name has been changed