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Sustainable Missoula: Stay safe during the smoky days of summer

Local elected officials Mirtha Becerra, Stacie Anderson, Dave Strohmaier and Juanita Vero join Robert Rivers (Imagine Nation Brewing co-owner, L) and Caroline Lauer (R) to taste test the climate beer of the future.

When wildfire smoke descends into our valley, it has the ability to transform the abstract, global nature of the climate crisis into a tangible, local experience. Last night at Imagine Nation Brewing, the idea of longer and more intense wildfire seasons was so real that you could taste it. Let us explain.

Inspired by New Belgium Brewing’s purposefully bad beer, Torched Earth, Wildfire Smoke Ready Week partners collaborated with Imagine Nation Brewing for a fun taste testing event on Wednesday night.

One beer, Deep Breath, represented the future in which we act on climate and we can all breathe easily in clean air, while its foil, Smoked Out, was the beer of the future if we don’t take aggressive actions to build community resilience.

It was a clear consensus from the group of special guests – four of our favorite elected officials – on hand to taste the two beers of the future: Smoked Out is nasty, and we must take the necessary steps to act on climate, ensure everyone has clean air to breathe, and yes, the ability to drink water and beer that’s not tainted with the odor and taste of thick smoke.

The bad news is that smoky skies have already arrived and may be with us for weeks or months, and we know that wildfire smoke has a host of serious health impacts. The good news – yes, there is good news – is that there are simple and relatively inexpensive steps we can all take to stay safe. The following guidance is provided with the help of Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist with Missoula City-County Health Department and clean air champion extraordinaire:

  1. Bookmark todaysair.mt.gov and learn the air quality rules of thumb

Air quality can change quickly – just because the air is unhealthy at one point doesn’t mean it will be unhealthy for the entire day. Check air quality throughout the day and take advantage of pockets of healthy air to get outside and open your doors and windows. In addition to checking Todaysair.mt.gov, you can also use these “rules of thumb.” Take a moment to measure the distance from your house or office to landmarks that are approximately 5, 2, and 1 miles away that you can typically see on a clear day. If you…

  • Cannot see 5 miles, the air is Unhealthy.
  • Cannot see 2 miles, the air is Very Unhealthy.
  • Cannot see 1 mile, the air is Hazardous.
  1. Purchase a HEPA portable air cleaner (PAC) or build a DIY fan + filter combo

Creating a clean air respite can help reduce the impacts of smoke exposure. Both HEPA PACs and DIY fan + filter combos remove the dangerous parts of wildfire smoke (PM 2.5) from your indoor air. HEPA PACs are commercially available (see here for more) and you can build a DIY combo with 3 simple supplies from the hardware store: a high efficiency filter (MERV 13 or higher is best, but MERV 11 or 12 will also work), a 20” box fan manufactured after 2011, and duct tape or a bungee cord. Visit montanawildfiresmoke.org for simple directions and guidance.

When deciding on which is best for you, consider cost (PACs are ~$100 – 200; DIY combos are ~$40), room size (make sure the filter is large enough for the room it’s in), and noise (PACs are quieter than DIY combos). Along with your PACs or DIY combos, make sure to purchase additional filters. If smoke is particularly bad, you may need to replace your filters part way through the summer.

Place your filter in a room where you spend a lot of time – bedrooms are a good choice! Then, close the doors and windows in that room so air can circulate through the filter. You may want more than one PAC or combo unit for different rooms in your home or business.

  1. Make a plan for when it is hot and smoky.

While it’s important to keep doors and windows closed so the PACs can clean the air, it is even more important to avoid heat stress and cool your home. Read on for ways to stay cool and breathe clean air:

  • If you have central air conditioning, try using your air handler to keep cool and, by installing a better filter, clean the air at the same time! Check with an HVAC technician if you are unsure if your system can use a better filter.
  • If you have a window A/C unit, place a HEPA PAC or DIY combo in the same room with the A/C unit to remove pollutants that may leak in. Turn off the outdoor air intake.
  • If you don’t have air conditioning, open your windows at night for cooling. After you close the windows, use PACs or DIY combos to remove smoke that enters overnight. You may also want to consider staying somewhere with cool air or leaving the area until the smoke clears or temperature drops.
  1. Reduce time outside.

If you work or play outside, try to reduce your activity levels during periods of unhealthy air quality. Heavy exertion causes you to breathe deeper and inhale more smoke. Take frequent breaks in an indoor area with clean air, and you may even consider using an N95 respirator for protection. A cloth mask, while effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, will not protect you from the fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke. (Note, if you have trouble breathing through the respirator, do not use it.) Lastly, if you have medically managed asthma, have your rescue inhaler on-hand and follow your asthma plan. No one should be afraid to seek medical attention if you experience severe symptoms.

  1. Check in on your friends and neighbors and support our community.

As we shared in our column last week and at our recent City Club presentation, when it’s smoky, we like to think about channeling a stress response of “tend and befriend”. We hope the practical tips above help you and your family get through smoke season, and we hope you will consider the following to tend to those who are most vulnerable and befriend your social network to multiply your impact:

  • Check in on neighbors that might need information and, possibly, help getting filters. Share our montanawildfiresmoke.org website, or you can even print our handy Wildfire Smoke Ready flyer and have a few on hand.
  • Support community efforts to get clean air to all, especially those most vulnerable. Climate Smart Missoula is expanding efforts to help our community take deep breaths and stay healthy by working with the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be getting as many box fan/filter setups to vulnerable members of our community already connected to the Missoula Food Bank. We won’t be shy here – we welcome donations of any size so we have the funds to order more fans and filters! It’s easy to make a tax-deductible donation here.
  • By getting wildfire smoke ready and building our community’s resilience to the climate impacts that are already here and coming, we can help manage the unavoidable. But there’s also a lot we must do to avoid the unmanageable. As we head into upcoming local election and budgeting seasons, and as our federal government has climate legislation in the hopper, let your elected representatives know that taking bold action to reduce our contribution to the climate crisis should be a priority!

Hopefully you’ve caught wind of many of these recommendations during this first-ever Wildfire Smoke Ready week. We aim to keep getting the word out and work with all of you to build resiliency. We hope you find clean air and take some deep breaths now and again, and know that blue skies will return.

Caroline Lauer is the Climate Resilience Coordinator for Missoula County and Amy Cilimburg is the executive director of Climate Smart Missoula.

* Wildfire Smoke Ready Week is brought to you by Missoula City-County Health Department, Climate Smart Missoula, United Way of Missoula County, Missoula County Sustainability, Missoula County Office of Emergency Management, and Missoula County Fire Protection Association.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

Wildfire Smoke Ready Week – July 12-18. See here to learn more about how we can, together, prepare for and stay healthy when wildfire smoke comes our way.

Participate in Creative Reuse at Western Montana Fair- register by July 22. Home ReSource is heading up the Creative Reuse Division at the 2021 Western Montana Fair. Submit a masterpiece made out of reused materials to the Creative Reuse Division for display during the week of the fair (Aug. 11-15) for all to see – you might even win “Best in Show”! Head here for details on classes, divisions, and prizes. Click here to register. Don’t forget to make a stop at Home ReSource to pick up reuse materials!

Computer Recycling. July 19-24. Home ReSource is partnering with local e-waste recycler, Oreo’s Refining, to recycle laptops and computer towers for FREE for a limited time. Drop off at Home ReSource between July 19 and 24 during our open hours (9am-6pm). Email carly@homeresource.org with questions.

Fixit Clinics – July 17 & Aug. 21, 11am-3pm. Save the dates for upcoming Fixit Clinics, hosted by Home ReSource! Bring your broken items and work with skilled repair coaches to learn how to fix them. More information and sign ups here.

Sunday Streets – August 8. This annual Missoula open streets celebration is back – this time hosted by the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood! Walk, bike or bus on down! Noon – 3pm. Details here.

Bike to Barns tour – Aug. 14-Sept. 30. Explore local farms and flavors on a 15-mile bike tour through Missoula’s Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods. Check back here for more info.

Spontaneous Construction – Sept 18th. Missoula’s festival of creative reinvention! Reuse. Compete. Create. Enjoy! More info and team registration here.

Missoula’s third annual Clean Energy Expo – Sept 25. Climate Smart Missoula and Montana Renewable Energy Association are back to hosting this premier event at Caras Park. Save the Date.

Missoula’s Farmers Markets. Eat local now through the early fall! The original Farmers Market at the north end of Higgins runs every Saturday 8am-12:30 – information here. The Clark Fork Market is now located at 101 Carousel Drive near Dragon Hallow, runs every Saturday 8am -1pm – information is here.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month breakdown of world day campaign