I love study­ing wild­fire smoke. Now it’s smoth­er­ing my com­mu­nity.

The Mon­tana blazes turned air qual­ity spe­cial­ist Sarah Coe­field into a first re­spon­der

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUT­LOOK - scoefield@mis­soula­county.us Sarah Coe­field is an air qual­ity spe­cial­ist with the Mis­soula City-County Health Depart­ment. She is a na­tive Mon­tanan.

It’s late Au­gust when I get a call from a grand­mother. She lives in See­ley Lake, and she’s heard we have air fil­ters that can help with smoke. She needs one for the baby’s room. I ex­plain we don’t have any and tell her how to pur­chase one. She coughs and goes silent be­fore ask­ing how much they cost. Al­most ev­ery per­son I talk to in See­ley Lake has this cough. The fam­ily doesn’t have much money, she says, but she prom­ises to or­der a fil­ter for the child. The next day, the wild­fire moves closer, and the county sher­iff ’s of­fice evac­u­ates her neigh­bor­hood. I won­der if the fil­ter will be there when the fam­ily re­turns home. I know the smoke will be.

As an air qual­ity spe­cial­ist with the county health depart­ment here, my job is to un­der­stand air pol­lu­tion, con­trol it as much as pos­si­ble and help peo­ple pro­tect them­selves from its ef­fects. I fo­cus on smoke man­age­ment: is­su­ing per­mits for out­door burns and up­dates about what to ex­pect from the smoke when wild­fires send it our way. In a typ­i­cal wild­fire sea­son, my smoke-re­lated re­spon­si­bil­i­ties end when I hit “send” on twice-daily me­dia up­dates.

If my job were only about fires and how the smoke moves, it would be sim­ple. Not easy, mind you: Wild­fire smoke is flashy and weird, and if any­one tells you they can re­li­ably pre­dict its be­hav­ior, they’re ly­ing. It’s just that purely fo­cus­ing on the science would be fun for a smoke nerd like me.

But in July, thun­der­storms trekked across west­ern Mon­tana, ig­nit­ing a ring of fires around Mis­soula County. One by one, they started blow­ing up, smoth­er­ing small towns in smoke. The mas­sive Rice

Ridge Fire burns di­rectly above the com­mu­nity of See­ley Lake, and ev­ery night, smoke fills the val­ley, build­ing by the hour and cre­at­ing dan­ger­ous breath­ing con­di­tions the likes of which we have never seen. To our south, the Lolo Peak Fire sends daily smoke to the Bit­ter­root Val­ley, cre­at­ing fre­quently haz­ardous, un­breath­able air for its res­i­dents. Never have we seen so many wild­fires so close to home for so many weeks.

As with most moun­tain val­ley com­mu­ni­ties, Mis­soula County’s most wor­ri­some and preva­lent air pol­lu­tant is the fine par­tic­u­late in wood smoke, so tiny it can en­ter your blood­stream when you breathe it in. It’s a cu­mu­la­tive pol­lu­tant: The more you’re in it, the worse it is for you. The par­tic­u­late ag­gra­vates asthma symp­toms and causes re­duced lung func­tion and wheezi­ness. It in­creases the risk of heart at­tack and stroke and can dam­age chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ing lungs. The el­derly, peo­ple with heart or lung dis­ease, preg­nant women, and chil­dren are most at risk. Wild­fire health stud­ies are still part of a grow­ing science, but we know the smoke is dan­ger­ous. We know there will be more emer­gency-room vis­its, more hospi­tal stays and, prob­a­bly, more deaths. We don’t know its long-term health con­se­quences, and no one knows what six weeks in the worst smoke we have ever seen will mean for the peo­ple in See­ley Lake.

At mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions scat­tered around the county, we mea­sure the mass of fine par­tic­u­late in the smoke. The Na­tional Am­bi­ent Air Qual­ity Stan­dard for fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter av­er­aged over 24 hours is 35 mi­cro­grams in a cu­bic me­ter of air. Our mon­i­tor in See­ley Lake is regis­ter­ing 1,000, as high as the ma­chine goes. It was built with­out the ex­pec­ta­tion of ever mea­sur­ing such con­cen­tra­tions.

When smoke de­scends on the val­ley, the world shrinks. Any­thing more than a block away dis­ap­pears be­hind a white wall of smoke. The birds are quiet.

Smoke makes its way through door and win­dow cracks. It fol­lows ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems into homes. With­out a fil­tra­tion sys­tem, the in­doors pro­vides no refuge. And in ru­ral Mon­tana, where air con­di­tion­ing is rare, most res­i­dents open their win­dows at night to seek re­lief from the hot, stuffy sum­mer air, even amid the smoke. The air warms enough in the af­ter­noons to rise and take the smoke with it, pro­vid­ing a few pre­cious hours of respite, but ev­ery night it de­scends, and ev­ery morn­ing it stays longer in the val­ley than it did the day be­fore.

In the ab­sence of cen­tral air sys­tems with fil­tra­tion for fine par­tic­u­lates, the best de­fense against the smoke is a high-ef­fi­ciency par­tic­u­late air (HEPA) fil­ter, which can re­duce the fine par­tic­u­late in a room by more than 99 per­cent. But while wild­fire smoke has be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon since 2000, HEPA room fil­ters are not yet a stan­dard fea­ture in homes.

My au­di­ence is broad and un­der stress. As the fires burn, I hear from teach­ers, par­ents, coaches, health-care work­ers and re­tirees. They call ask­ing where they can go to es­cape the smoke. They want to know how to pro­tect them­selves, what kind of room fil­ters will work, should they wear a mask? They plead for fil­ters I don’t have. They ask ques­tions I can’t al­ways an­swer. A child came home sick from school — why were the school win­dows open? The var­sity team is ex­pected to play soc­cer in the smoke — why hasn’t the game been can­celed?

There is smoke in­side the See­ley Lake clinic. The nurses are sick. A pa­tient in the clinic said the smoke makes him want to die. A baby who has been sick in the hospi­tal is be­ing dis­charged, and her fam­ily doesn’t have money for a fil­ter. An asth­matic grand­mother liv­ing in See­ley Lake just got cus­tody of her 1-year-old grand­son, but she’s sick from the smoke and wor­ried for the child. A house­bound cou­ple has sur­vived pneu­mo­nia three times this year, and the hus­band is on oxy­gen. They are a mile from the fire. Please help, they ask. I try. Some re­quests are eas­ier than oth­ers. I track down school ath­letic direc­tors to make sure the peo­ple ar­rang­ing soc­cer games fol­low the cor­rect guid­ance. I pull up a map and fig­ure out how close the clean­est air is. I look at weather pat­terns and models and make pro­jec­tions about when the smoke is likely to clear or worsen. I ex­plain the dif­fer­ent health cat­e­gories for smoke. I share in­for­ma­tion about HEPA room fil­ters and ex­plain how they can help cre­ate a safe space in a home.

But the smoke in See­ley Lake thick­ens on a daily ba­sis. I talk to my su­per­vi­sors, and we send out an of­fi­cial rec­om­men­da­tion that res­i­dents leave the area un­til the smoke clears. Few take our ad­vice. Few have any­where to go.

I call the direc­tor of Cli­mate Smart Mis­soula, which has launched a pi­lot project to pro­vide HEPA room fil­ters to the el­derly, and plead for help. They come through with 25 fil­ters for clinic pa­tients. I call state agen­cies and ask for money to buy fil­ters and am left empty-handed. We call the See­ley Lake and Lolo el­e­men­tary schools and ask if they have fil­tered air for their stu­dents. They don’t. We raid our health depart­ment bud­get and pur­chase 40 HEPA room fil­ters for the schools. Cli­mate Smart Mis­soula or­ders 45 more, hop­ing that some­one will step in to fill the bank ac­count it just emp­tied. When chil­dren’s health is at risk, the direc­tor ex­plains, you don’t wait on de­tails.

I call my con­tact at the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion, and she im­me­di­ately con­tacts head­quar­ters. They have some money. But I send them to the next county over, where, for now, the need is greater. I start field­ing calls from sur­round­ing coun­ties ask­ing how we found money, how we de­cided where the fil­ters should go. I send them what in­for­ma­tion I have.

I start shuf­fling fil­ters or try­ing to find fil­ters on a near-daily ba­sis — five for a clinic, three for a tiny school by the Lolo Peak Fire. There’s an el­e­men­tary school in Con­don where 23 stu­dents are sit­ting in smoke so thick that vis­i­bil­ity has dropped to less than half a mile; we send them eight. One day, I re­ceive three re­quests for fil­ters I don’t have — two for ba­bies and one for a chok­ing el­derly cou­ple. I take their in­for­ma­tion and prom­ise to try to help. And then I put my head in my hands and weep.

Through­out it all, I send out up­dates about the smoke: where it’s go­ing, how bad it will get, how peo­ple can pro­tect them­selves. I sprin­kle the up­dates with dumb smoke jokes and asides and dark hu­mor, be­cause it’s my sur­vival mech­a­nism and maybe it will help oth­ers. Peo­ple tell me it does.

But ev­ery night, while I lie in my bed with my fil­ter gently whirring be­side me, I know there are vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple sleep­ing un­pro­tected.

And I know — in an­other year, in an­other val­ley — the smoke will be back. I take com­fort know­ing that when it does, we won’t have to scram­ble. Af­ter weeks of fran­tic ac­tiv­ity, play­ing catch-up and plead­ing for money, the health depart­ment has en­tered a new era of wild­fire smoke re­sponse. We’ve laid the ground­work to pro­tect our com­mu­ni­ties from smoke — ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic, cre­at­ing space spa­ces for vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents, build­ing a cache of fil­ters — and we’ve seen our ef­forts ex­pand through­out west­ern Mon­tana. We live in a fire-adapted ecosys­tem, and, out of ne­ces­sity, we’re be­com­ing a smoke-adapted com­mu­nity. The val­ley rain and moun­tain snow are com­ing. We will stop and breathe the clean air. And then we will get ready for next year.

They call ask­ing where they can go to es­cape the smoke. They want to know how to pro­tect them­selves, what kind of room fil­ters will work, should they wear a mask? They plead for fil­ters I don’t have.

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