Missoula City Council approves changes to restrictions during wildfire smoke crises

Western Montanans haven’t yet forgotten the 2017 wildfire season, which filled the skies with flames and smoke for months, including the Carlton Creek drainage near Lolo. (inciweb.com)

Missoula health officers will no longer need to quietly circumvent local air pollution rules during unhealthy air episodes caused by wildfire smoke, under changes approved Monday night by the City Council.

Already given the go-ahead by county commissioners and the City-County Air Pollution Control Board, the changes now only need approval from the Montana Board of Environmental Review, which meets on April 6.

Sarah Coefield, an air-quality specialist with the City-County Health Department, told council members that wildfire smoke can create such unhealthy conditions in Missoula County’s mountain valleys that restrictions on wood stoves and industry could be enacted.

But it would do no good to shut down stoves – which probably aren’t being used during wildfire season anyway – or industries, when the problem is smoke from burning timber, Coefield said.

So the revised rules, unanimously approved Monday night, eliminate restrictions on human-caused sources of pollution during a wildfire smoke episode.

The restrictions, however, remain in effect during the winter months, when stoves, industry, vehicles and street sand are the primary contributors to Missoula’s dirty air.

“During a wildfire smoke episode, it’s not going to do any good to tell people to shut down their wood stoves,” Coefield said. “They are not responsible for the pollution. It wouldn’t do anything to protect or improve anyone’s health.”

So the new regulations codify the Health Department’s wildfire warning procedure, which got many weeks of use last summer when wildfires surrounding Missoula and in close proximity to Seeley Lake and Lolo produced the highest particulate-pollution readings ever seen in Missoula County.

At one point, residents of Seeley Lake were encouraged to leave their town to protect their health, so thick was the smoke – indoors and outdoors.

Coefield said the changes came at the urging of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which suggested the department “codify our current actions during a wildfire smoke event.”

The new rules tell how the county monitors air quality during wildfire season and how citizens are warned of the danger from smoke in the air.

“Our intent is still the same, and our actions are still the same,” Coefield said. “This is what we do. We issue health advisories. We monitor and try to help people understand what is going on.”

Council members unanimously approved the changes, and thanked the City-County Health Department for its continued excellence in protecting and improving the quality of Missoula’s air.

“Once again, the Health Department has exceeded our expectations,” said Ward 5 Councilwoman Julie Armstrong.