Sustainable Missoula: Prepare for wildfire smoke before it arrives
Such a beautiful start to summer: rain, clean air and no wildfires or smoke in our valleys. With a robust snowpack, a lot of spring precipitation and cooler temperatures, we may dodge a bad fire season. So why the heck are we excited for Missoula’s second annual Wildfire Smoke Ready Week, July 9-16?
We’re excited because this is the best time to prepare – before the smoke rolls in. To be honest, we don’t know what the rest of this summer will bring, and if past experience is a guide, we’ve months to go before the snow flies. If we avoid a flash drought, we may escape the season without major fires in our backyards. Unfortunately, we are downwind from states that are primed to burn. Last year, we had nearly two months of smoke that originated out of state!
Luckily, through partnerships, generous individuals, and good science, we’ve learned a lot about the health impacts of wildfire and what to do, together, to stay healthy. Five years ago, we didn’t have the myriad tools for coping with smoke. We had so much to learn about creating cleaner indoor air spaces and protecting our most vulnerable community members: children, the elderly, everyone with heart or lung disease, outdoor workers, and pregnant people.
Those who’ve spent a lot of time in the West are familiar with wildfire smoke. We know about the stinging eyes, headaches, scratchy throats and coughing. We may be less familiar with smoke’s more sinister aspects: damage to children’s developing lungs, systemic inflammation, increased susceptibility to respiratory disease, and worsened asthma and COPD symptoms.
Recent research suggests smoke impacts immune systems, neurological functions, and birth weights. We still don’t know what repeated exposure, summer after summer, means for our families and neighbors. We do know that climate change and fuel buildup in the forests have led to longer fire seasons and more smoke entering our valleys.
We’ve learned portable air cleaners (PACs) with HEPA filters are highly effective at cleaning indoor air. And that the less expensive DIY air cleaners (slap an efficient furnace filter on a box fan!) are just as effective as HEPA PACs. We now know smoke comes inside commercial spaces, and air conditioning does not guarantee clean indoor air. On the flip side, we’ve seen how well-maintained HVAC systems with efficient filters and proper building operation can create an indoor refuge when smoke builds outside. We’ve learned how commonplace and accessible respirators like N95s can become.
We’ve learned all this and more, and we want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to share in this information and take simple steps to protect themselves, their families, employees, and neighbors from wildfire smoke.
This July 9-16 is Missoula County’s Wildfire Smoke Ready Week* – a week dedicated to helping our communities learn about wildfire smoke, its health effects, and simple steps everyone can take to be Smoke Ready. We hope you’ll seek us out at one of these events:
7/9 – Missoula Farmers' Market, N. Higgins (8 a.m. - noon)
7/10 – Seeley Lake Sunday Market (10 a.m. - 2 p.m.)
7/13 – Out to Lunch, Caras Park (11 a.m. - 2 p.m.)
7/13 – Wildfire Smoke Trivia Night, Imagine Nation Brewing (5:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.)
7/16 – Both Missoula Farmers’ Markets (8 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.)
7/17 – Seeley Lake Sunday Market (10 a.m. - 2 p.m.)
For details about these events, or if you miss them and would like to learn more, head to MontanaWildfireSmoke.org. It will be a fun and informative week, and you may even find yourself humming this jingle!
We’re excited to share all we know, and we know there’s much more to learn – and do. Climate change will increasingly bring smoke and heat to our valleys, and via our Climate Ready Missoula resiliency plan, we have strategies, rooted in equity and collaboration, that are ripe for implementation.
It’s essential that we take a community approach and ask questions like: How are my neighbors coping and can I help? How does wildfire smoke intersect with heat, and how can we best, collectively, address both? How can we do more so everyone is healthy? Please join us in these efforts in the days, weeks, and years to come. It will take all of us.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series on Wildfire Smoke and our community’s response - we’ll be back next week with more about climate impacts and ideas about how you can be part of a stronger community response so we can all be healthy.
Amy Cilimburg is the executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, Sarah Coefield is the air quality specialist with Missoula City-County Health Department, and Caroline Bean is the climate action program manager for Missoula County.
* 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.
Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. For more, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter via their homepage here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.
It’s Farmers’ Market Season! Support local food & farmers. Missoula Farmers Market (N. HIggins) and the Clark Fork River Market run on Saturdays through October, with a Tuesday evening market July – September.
Sign up to be a volunteer Zero Waste Cafeteria Coach with MCPS.
July 9-16 — Wildfire Smoke Ready Week. See above and here. Don't forget 7/13 Trivia Night!
July 13, 5 pm: Jeannette Rankin Peace Center’s annual Peace Party, at Paddleheads Stadium.
Don’t forget – 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.