Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) With this year’s low snowpack and temperatures warmer than normal, western Montana may soon have to deal with wildfires and the smoke that comes with them. Fortunately, air quality professionals have received federal money to help people out.

On Thursday, KC Becker, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 administrator, visited Missoula to tout the $3.5 million in federal grants that was recently awarded to air quality divisions of the state of Montana, Missoula County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to fund efforts to better detect wildfire smoke, mitigate its effects and educate Montanans how to stay safe once air quality starts to deteriorate.

The money is coming from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, so there will be more opportunity for agencies and organizations to apply in the future.

“I want to make sure all the states in our region are aware and have the opportunity to apply,” Becker told the Current. “But Montana has already jumped in on this air quality stuff. It has installed air quality monitors in each high school in the state, which is amazing. I haven’t seen any other state do something like that. They’ve applied for this wildfire preparedness grant, and invested in outreach. So I think they’re definitely a leader. Exactly how it compares to other states, I don’t know. But given the limited resources of Montana DEQ and some of the cities and counties, the fact that they’re prioritizing this I think is great.”

Missoulians know how bad smoke can get once it settles into the Five Valleys, especially during an inversion. Local fires can affect the air quality, but even smoke from fires as far away as California or Canada can make going outside a risky endeavor.

The particulates in smoke are particularly hard on people who already have respiratory challenges, but researchers are finding that smoke takes its toll on healthy people to a greater extent than once assumed.

University of Montana toxicologist Chris Migliaccio started monitoring Seeley Lake residents who had endured smoke from the 2017 Rice Ridge Fire. He found people suffered long-term effects but had to suspend the study in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“We did find an effect on lung function. The question is how long does that last and what is the effect on lung susceptibility to viruses?” Migliaccio said. “We’re still trying to understand how we categorize these exposures. There are good days and bad days, so we’re still trying to understand is there a cumulative effect. And unfortunately, here in Missoula and western Montana, we get that cumulative exposure.”

Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield and EPA regional administrator KC Becker listen on Thursday to BJ Biskupiak describe how the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will use EPA grant money. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield and EPA regional administrator KC Becker listen on Thursday to BJ Biskupiak describe how the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will use EPA grant money. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Missoula County Air Quality specialist Sarah Coefield said air quality experts used to tell people to work and exercise indoors when wildfire smoke caused air quality indices to soar into unhealthy values, prompting health alerts. But then they started to question whether indoor air was much better. Turns out, it often isn’t, especially if heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems aren’t working well or buildings aren’t well sealed. Even HEPA filters might not go far enough.

Coefield and other engineers and scientists conducted an ASPIRE - Advancing Science Partnerships for Indoor Reductions of Smoke Exposures - study in 2019 and 2020 that found a wide variation in the amount of smoke particulates in various buildings around Missoula, depending on HVAC system efficiency/condition, window and door leaks, and the density of smoke outside. Ironically, the Health Department building had some of the worst air quality due to a broken HVAC system.

“You can’t just assume that because your air is conditioned and giving you external comfort that your air is also clean,” Coefield said. “Nobody really likes to hear about HVAC systems, because it’s not exciting talk. But it should be. Understand that we need to do more on HVAC systems and our aging buildings.”

UM professor Ethan Walker said it was extremely important to determine which buildings let more smoke in because people spend about 90% of their lives indoors. That is particularly problematic for hospitals and other care centers.

Walker studies biomass pollution from wildfires or field burning and its effects on the human cardiovascular system and lung health, especially in vulnerable populations.

“There is no level of air pollution that is considered safe,” Walker said. “It’s important to consider hospitals and long-term care facilities where we have these older individuals with existing health conditions that are very vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire smoke and heat that’s coming with climate change, so how can we focus on indoor air quality because they have very little choice of anywhere else to go?”

There’s a chance some of that could be addressed. In January, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services was one of nine entities nationwide to receive EPA funding for wildfire smoke preparedness in community buildings. The department will receive $610,000 over three years to improve wildfire smoke messaging and awareness; improve HVAC maintenance;and develop a clean shelter recognition program.

BJ Biskupiak, health education specialist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the department wanted to take the recent research and information on the negative health effects of smoke that has been developed in larger towns like Missoula and share it across the state.

The strategy includes three areas of focus: increased communication, technical training on HVAC for building managers and a clean-air recognition checklist to identify what building upgrades might be needed to improve indoor air.

“What are the steps we can take to improve things ahead of wildfire season, not in the middle of it when people are experiencing health effects,” Biskupiak said.

The EPA also awarded three government-to-government grants that help governments work with other organizations on improving environmental and public health for communities that have disproportionate impacts from some environmental concern, in this case, wildfire smoke. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Missoula County and the CSKT each received a $1 million grant.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at