Missoula County health officers broaden warnings about wildfire smoke

The Rice Ridge fire has now burned 10,194 acres near Seeley Lake and is just 10 percent contained. Firefighters are assigned to that fire 24 hours a day because of the imminent threat it poses to Seeley Lake. (inciweb.com)

Wildfire smoke was thick in many western Montana valleys on Thursday, posing a threat to all residents of Seeley Lake and to the most vulnerable populations in the Missoula, Bitterroot and lower Clark Fork valleys.

The Missoula City-County Health Department again warned that no one is safe from the health impacts posed by smoke from the Rice Ridge fire as it pours into nearby Seeley Lake.

Health officers have urged residents of that normally bustling resort town to leave the area, as both outdoor and indoor air is hazardous to even the healthiest people.

And conditions were expected to get worse by Friday morning, according to Sarah Coefield, a county air quality specialist.

“We’re seeing a lot of Canadian smoke being pulled down to ground level,” she said. “The atmosphere is going to stop mixing pretty early this evening, and then we’re looking at calm, stable conditions countywide shortly after midnight.”

And stable air is not good when it’s filled with smoke.

Or in Coefield’s words: “That means tomorrow morning should look a lot like this morning, only potentially a little bit worse, because we’re going to be starting off with more smoke in the air tonight than we did last night.”

“Expect significant smoke pooling in communities near active fires,” she said.

Air quality in Seeley Lake will likely be very unhealthy or hazardous by morning. Air quality in Missoula, Lolo, Arlee and the Interstate 90 corridor near the Sunrise fire may be unhealthy by Friday morning.

And Friday will bring “more of the same,” Coefield warned. “Expect hazy skies and deteriorating air quality.”

The Sunrise Fire is sending a plume that is large enough to stand out from the Canadian smoke. (Satellite photo)

The weather forecast shows Missoula air flow shifting to westerly breezes. That means the Sunrise fire outside Superior “is about to become a major player when it comes to Missoula Valley air quality,” Coefield said. “You can see a pretty large plume from that fire in this afternoon’s satellite photo.”

Both the Sunrise and Rice Ridge fires were very active on Thursday afternoon.

In an unprecedented move, the Health Department urged Seeley Lake residents to leave town on Wednesday because of the danger posed by record concentrations of wildfire smoke in the town.

Smoke from the nearby Rice Ridge fire will continue funneling into Seeley Lake every night, “where it enters the buildings and puts every resident at risk of serious health effects,” the department warned. “The recommendations are for everyone, but they are especially important for groups with higher health risks from breathing smoke: infants, children, pregnant women, people with asthma, lung or heart disease, and everyone 65 or older.”

“Spend as little time in the Seeley Lake area as possible,” the warning said. “If you must be in Seeley Lake during the day, leave the area at night. The worst smoke is gathering overnight and is entering buildings.”

In other areas, where the air quality is listed as “unhealthy,” people with heart and lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should limit heavy or prolonged exertion and limit the time spent outdoors.

The Rice Ridge fire has now burned 10,194 acres near Seeley Lake and is just 10 percent contained. It was started by lightning on July 24.

Firefighting efforts there have focused on building fire lines to protect the town itself and the Double Arrow subdivision.

The Sunrise fire has burned 14,591 acres southeast of Superior and is just 20 percent contained. Fire managers have warned that the fire is a “long-duration event” and will produce smoke for the remainder of the summer.

Missoula County is ringed by wildfires, and is also receiving smoke from a number of very large Canadian fires. (Missoula County)