Seeley Lake residents told to leave town as wildfire smoke hits record levels

Smoke from the Rice Ridge fire continues to pour into Seeley Lake each night. (inciweb.com)

In an unprecedented move, the Missoula City-County Health Department recommended that Seeley Lake residents leave town Wednesday because the wildfire smoke is so dangerously unhealthy.

“Recent air monitoring readings show record levels of harmful wildfire smoke in Seeley Lake,” air quality officers said in a written message to the town’s residents. “Indoor air is not safe. The smoke that is outside is also inside the buildings.”

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.”

Never before has Missoula’s Health Department issued such a strong warning – and a recommendation that residents leave their home – because of wildfire smoke.

The written recommendation was clear:

“Spend as little time in the Seeley Lake area as possible,” it 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.

“Consider moving at-risk family members out of the area.”

Again, health officers cautioned, “being inside does not provide adequate protection from the smoke.”

The U.S. Forest Service posted this photograph showing the type of downed, dead timber that is fueling the Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake. (inciweb.com)

The 9,286-acre Rice Ridge fire was started by lightning on July 24 and is just 10 percent contained. It is burned in mixed conifer and lodgepole, much of which is dead and downed – and much of which is inaccessible to firefighters, according to incident managers from the U.S. Forest Service.

Aircraft are working the fire each day, but it continues to burn actively northeast of Seeley Lake.

Wind conditions Wednesday night into Thursday were calm, with “significant smoke pooling” not only in Seeley Lake, but in other valleys throughout Missoula County where wildfires are burning nearby.

Air quality was listed as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” overnight in Missoula, Frenchtown, Lolo, Florence, Rock Creek and Arlee. Eleven wildfires are burning within 70 miles of Missoula. In addition, smoke from wildfires burning in British Columbia is also flowing into the county and reaching surface level.

Late Wednesday, county health officials also advised that summer practices for school athletic events in Seeley Lake should be canceled or moved to a different community that has clean air.

And even if practices are move, “they should be low intensity,” the recommendation read. “Anyone who is spending the night in Seeley Lake is breathing dangerous levels of harmful smoke pollution and should not exert themselves until smoke has stopped entering the town and their bodies have had time to recover.”

Health effects from such high levels of particulate pollution include severely reduced lung function, heart attack and stroke.

Particle or surgical masks will not protect Seeley Lake residents’ health, according to the county’s air quality experts. “They provide no protection against the very small particles you breathe in from wildfire smoke.”

Any Seeley Lake resident who needs a place to go can stay at a Red Cross shelter in the Potomac Valley. Those residents should call the Red Cross of Montana at 1-800-272-6668 to arrange to stay at the shelter.