We’re hearing from friends, colleagues and neighbors a common refrain: “What a beautiful summer we’ve been having. We’re so lucky, especially given these strange and challenging times.”

These warm days make it easy to spend physically distant time with friends, whether at a backyard gathering or a walk along the river or in the hills. We’re taking advantage of clear skies. Anyone see the Neowise Comet yet? Alas, with the mercury about to hit 90 and no rain in the forecast, there’s change afoot. Higher temperatures and smoky skies are not unexpected, and our changing climate is making these conditions more common.

We’ve learned over the years that we need to listen to the scientists and prepare for summers that feature wildfire smoke and heat waves. This year we have COVID to contend with, and the potential intersection is scary. Let’s be smart and act.

Climate Smart Missoula launched our Summer Smart program back in 2016 to help our community prepare and take action. We’ve jumped into efforts to understand who is most vulnerable to changing summer conditions and have since partnered with area experts to create myriad resources about wildfire smoke and health and the importance of clean indoor air. We’ve worked with the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD), nonprofits, and schools to distribute HEPA portable air cleaners to those in need.

These efforts are increasingly part of essential community conversations and actions that consider and work with all community members.

Thankfully our cool, wet June delayed the arrival of wildfire smoke season; we’ve used this time to get ready for the dual threat of COVID and wildfire smoke. Studies have shown that air pollution leads to worse COVID health outcomes, and yet because of COVID, we don’t have access to a traditional response to unhealthy air: encouraging people to go to public spaces that have air filtration. If it’s smokey outside, what to do?

The most obvious answer is clean indoor air for all. We think that together we can help ourselves and our neighbors.

A DIY fan/filter combo and a HEPA Portable Air Cleaner.
A DIY fan/filter combo and a HEPA Portable Air Cleaner.

In addition to improving central air and HVAC systems, we highly recommend folks purchase one or more HEPA portable air cleaners (PACs) for rooms we spend most of our time in. But shelling out $150 can be hard for many. This year, we’ve partnered with local mechanical engineer, Tom Javins, to bring forward an inexpensive way to clean the air in your home: a DIY box fan and air filter combination. Tom volunteered a good chunk of his winter to make sure these fan/filters combos are safe and effective (thank you Tom). Turns out these are safe and the DIY part is easy! Visit our wildfire smoke website to watch a quick tutorial.

It can still be difficult to sort through all the information and make sure you have the tools you need. Filter ratings and HVAC systems can be confusing. This is why we’re hosting a virtual Facebook Live Q&A on Wednesday, July 22 at 12 p.m. with Sarah Coefield and Tom Javins to answer all of your clean air questions.

Now you might be thinking, I can help my family - what about our community? Not everyone has $45. Not everyone knows the health threats and how to prepare. Shameless plug - you can DONATE to our Clean Air program and we’ll accelerate our efforts to donate fan/filter combos or HEPA PACs to those in need.

Our Summer Smart efforts are also part of a broader conversation about the climate crisis and environmental injustice. COVID disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, and the intersection of wildfire smoke and COVID amplifies these unequal health outcomes. Bringing clean air to those who need it most is a necessary, practical response to the health impacts of wildfire smoke. But at the same time, we have to understand and address the deep-seated underlying conditions that cause unequal health outcomes in the first place.

We hope you’ll join us for panel discussions of two films that vividly illustrate these issues and what they mean for Missoula and Montana. We’ll post time and ‘how to join” details here.

July 29: The film Cooked, explores the politics of disaster preparedness and recovery through the lens of the 1995 Chicago heat wave. During the infamous heat wave, over 700 people died - overwhelmingly black and brown residents of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The film argues disasters allow us to “recognize conditions that are always present but hard to perceive,” and shows how, too often, the damage from so-called “natural” disasters has human-made causes: poverty and racism. The film raises questions such as, how can we prepare for climate impacts in a way that acknowledges structural inequalities? How can we build climate-resilient communities that are also just and equitable?

Early August (date TBD): Given how air pollution exacerbates COVID-19, the film Unbreathable is especially timely. Created in honor of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Air Act, it shows how that landmark legislation dramatically reduced pollution across the country, but is under threat today. It also highlights how air pollution, including from the fossil fuel industry, continues to disproportionately harm low-wealth and communities of color. Sponsored by the American Lung Association of Montana, Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, and Climate Smart Missoula, the panel will explore how to strengthen local and statewide efforts to protect all Montanans as our climate changes.

Today’s column is the first in our Summer Smart series - we’ve more to share. Next week we’ll discuss heat extremes and what we can do together. Please get in touch if you have ideas, time or funds to support this work.

The climate crisis and the current pandemic pose serious threats, to be sure. Let’s channel our new clarity of vision and motivation to care for our families and neighbors, and use this moment to creatively build the resilient and just world we want.

Caroline Lauer, Abby Huseth, and Amy Cilimburg are the Program Director, Outreach Director, and Executive Director of Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has postponed or cancelled many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. 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 Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

It’s farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market will have online ordering for pickup at the market available throughout the season, starting May 23. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

Registration is open for the Creative Reuse Division at the Western Montana Fair! Calling all creative re-users! Home ReSource is once again heading up the Creative Reuse Division at the Western Montana Fair. Register online by July 29. Submissions will be in person by appointment from 8am-1pm on July 30 in the Commercial Building at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. More information here.

July 22, 12 - 1pm: Facebook Live Q&A with Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield and Tom Javins. Answer all of your air filtration questions!

July 22. Virtual Farmer Field Day. This online event hosted by Community Food and Agriculture Coalition will feature exciting on-farm video from Amaltheia Vegetable Farm and an opportunity for questions and conversations. Find more information and the registration link here.

July 23 – September 3. Montana Renewable Energy Association’s Summer Series continues. On Thursdays at 12:30pm, join in on virtual lunchtime presentations about renewable energy topics. More details and RSVP here.

July 29. Screening and discussion of Cooked. Visit this page for more time and details.