While wildfires endanger lives and homes, smoke silently attacks those beyond reach of the flames, health officers said Thursday in announcing a new website intended to answer Montanans’ questions and help them stay healthy during smoky summer months.

“One of the points that I really like to make with folks is that during a wildfire event, there’s a lot of focus on the planes and the danger and that’s all very important, but the vast majority of people in this state will never lose a house to fire. They will not be evacuated. But we all are going to be impacted by smoke,” said Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department. “Smoke is what impacts more people than anything else during a wildfire event, and yet it doesn’t always receive the top billing.”

That’s why Climate Smart Missoula, with help from local experts on wildfires, air quality and climate change, launched the website– as a hub of information on current air quality conditions across Montana, health risks from wildfire smoke, ways to clean the air inside a home and the science behind the smoke.

The web address: https://www.montanawildfiresmoke.org/.

Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, said the new site is needed to educate Montanans about fires.

Funding was provided by a grant from the Montana Wildfire Relief Fund created in response to last year’s extreme fire season.

“It’s really nice to have a repository, or a place, where people can go to find information on the air quality today,” Cilimburg said. “What concerns do I have? What else can I be doing for my family, or if I’m a health practitioner, how I can I work with my patients?”

According to the Montana Climate Assessment, temperatures have increased about 1.5 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, and are projected to increase by 5 degrees by 2050, with summer temperatures being impacted the most. The summer of 2017 was the driest on record since 1950.

“The number of acres burned in the state increases exponentially with temperature, and it decreases exponentially with precipitation,” said Nick Silverman who worked on the Montana Climate Assessment. “Historically, we know that temperature and precipitation play a big part in the overall equation of wildfire.”

While long-term effects of yearly smoke inhalation are still being studied, children, the elderly and patients with respiratory conditions are the most vulnerable to short-term symptoms that affect health, both physical and mental.

While going indoors might seem like the safest place, Coefield said that during wildfire season, air quality indoors can be just as bad as the outside air.

The standards for new buildings require air filters, but do not require ones that can remove harmful smoke particles from the air.

“There are no standards for buildings in a wildfire-prone area,” Coefield said. “There is not a smoke preparedness standard. So what we’ve seen are buildings being constructed without consideration for the wildfire smoke.”

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)
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)

Heather Jurvakainen, Park County nurse and mother of two children with asthma, said that money and effort spent on preventative measures and education could help reduce harmful effects on residents in their homes, children in schools and other public places.

Using HEPA air filters inside a home or using a high-grade filter within an air-conditioning system can help.

As a nurse, she has seen an influx of people with respiratory conditions who don’t know the risks of inhaling wildfire smoke and are unaware of what they can do to breathe a little easier.

“I’m concerned about the perpetual exposure that we can continue to plan for and our lack of preparation in our communities,” she said. “I think everywhere in Montana, we have old schools, we live in old houses, and how do we prepare for these events so people are in healthy environments when they are inside?”

Helena city commissioner Andres Haladay said that already the public has raised questions about adding air filtration systems to Helena’s older school buildings and to new ones.

He hopes that the website will help educate residents and engage them in bettering air quality after having some of the worst air quality statistics from last year’s fires.

“As we focus on the visceral danger of the wildfire itself, we often downplay for communities, residents, the effects of wildfire smoke and we see it as an after consideration or just an intended impact that's a nuisance,” Haladay said. “We kind of talk about daily air quality statistics as though they were sports scores, rather than this ongoing health effect.”