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Trial by fire: What more wildfires mean for those in the smoke

From the State of Change series

SEELEY LAKE — It looked like the world dropped off at the edge of Teddy Pierce’s driveway.

Smoke from the 2017 Rice Ridge fire, which bordered this town of 1,600, clouded shops and houses until buildings became silhouettes. Pierce’s neighborhood faded to gray.

Pierce, now 76, listened for news of the fire’s movement. Recently retired, Pierce lived with her daughter who worked at the grocery store down the road. They felt lucky. They weren’t forced to evacuate like their neighbors on the opposite side of the street. Pierce’s eyes burned but that didn’t compare to her daughter’s cough.

They either never heard the health department’s unprecedented alert to leave town for cleaner air or so quickly dismissed it they forgot it ever happened.

“It was just smoke,” Pierce said. “We didn’t leave because it would have been a hassle.”

Montanans know wildfire as the state’s fifth season. Smoke is just part of that.

But that summer, the blanket over Seeley Lake didn’t break. Those who stayed — most everyone — lived in one of the worst wildfire smoke events ever recorded.

The smoke held for 50 days — 44 of which the pollution was bad enough to harm people. Some days, the hazardous air quality surpassed what the area’s monitoring stations could measure.

“It was relentless,” said Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department.

Coefield said she reached out to contacts at Health Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency to ask what the intensity of smoke would mean for those breathing it.

“Their response was, ‘we’ve never seen smoke like this,’” Coefield said.

Coefield said until then, health officials advised people to stay inside until the skies cleared and hold off on things like running. Basically, don’t move too much or breathe too hard.

Coefield’s job is to understand and manage air pollution as much as a person can. In a typical season, she issues burn permits, tells people what to expect when smoke is around and sends daily media updates.

That summer, she was trying to help people breathe.

Health officials and researchers are working to understand what seasons of smoke mean for those in the haze. New research shows it’s not good.

“2017 created a new paradigm, this idea we should do something about smoke. And we’re all playing catch up,” Coefield said.

“New Normal”

Public health leaders are paying attention to climate change. They have a long list of reasons why.

There’s a higher risk of fires, floods and droughts. Extreme weather can threaten and destroy people, buildings and a stable life. That experience — even its potential — can harm people’s mental health. Children, seniors and people in poverty are most at risk.

Rising temperatures help disease-causing pathogens flourish in crops. Warmer water causes bacteria to grow in new places. Seasons for disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes are getting longer and the pests are showing up where they hadn’t been before.

A big unknown in the world’s changing normal is what more days breathing in smoke means for humans.

Many said the smoke would stick around Seeley Lake until it snowed, but it was rain that finally cleared the sky that September. It happened to fall the day before a team of University of Montana researchers arrived.

At the request of the Missoula City-County Health Department, they were there to evaluate the people who stayed through the fires.

Chris Migliaccio, an immunologist with UM, said they expected to watch lungs recover with time.

“We actually saw the opposite: Overall lung function was worse,” Migliaccio said.

The damp town smelled like soot when 95 people, from their 20s to 80s, showed up for the first survey.

The UM team checked how their lungs took in air and measured depression levels. Some had a cough or trouble breathing. Others felt fine. Tests showed some people’s lungs weren’t as strong as they should have been, considering their age and health.

The researchers couldn’t connect one sampling to smoke, so they’ve returned each year since.

A year after the fire, participants’ lung function was worse.

The team returned this summer and, again, overall lung function had declined.

It’s subtle, Migliaccio said.

“Outside of a high-end athlete that knows their body really well, it would be highly unlikely they can tell their lung function has changed,” he said. “Everybody is still functional for the most part. Maybe they’re falling a little short of breath after 15 stairs instead of 20.”

Smoke’s immediate consequences are known: more emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and, occasionally, death.

“We’ve all lived through fires,” Migliaccio said. “Everyone says, ‘Well, how bad is it because I’ve been through a ton of these.’ But nobody’s actually tested to see, are we long-term affected by this?”

The study recently received its third grant from the National Institute of Health to continue through the spring of 2020, and the researchers have begun to survey people in other Montana towns. The team hopes another grant carries their work the next five years.

Migliaccio said more time is the only way to see whether people’s lungs recover, “or if this is their new normal.”

Flying laboratory

Seeley wasn’t alone. Lightning storms ignited pockets across western Montana and states throughout the West faced their own fires.

As the mountains bordering Seeley Lake burned, atmospheric chemist Lu Hu of the University of Montana was on a plane he calls “the flying laboratory” headed toward California wildfires.

On this trip, Hu guided pilots from the cockpit of the cargo plane-turned lab toward a wildfire’s plume. They circled the plume as lab equipment sucked in samples from the air and 18 scientists wearing motion-sickness prevention patches recorded the results.

Hu is part of a national effort to understand wildfire smoke.

“What it’s made of, how far it travels and how it changes,” Hu said.

The study includes scientists from universities across the West and is part of a series of campaigns backed the National Science Foundation, NASA and NOAA on the belief that the chemistry of smoke changes air quality, weather and climate.

They began collecting samples in 2017, which Hu said was one of the first times scientists followed smoke outside of a lab. He said it feels like they’re the first to mine a mountain.

Part of why it’s only happening now is it’s expensive. Hu said another piece is for a long time, these wildfires mainly stifled isolated towns. But bigger wildfires rubbing against bigger populations not only raises smoke’s profile, it increases the data.

What’s in smoke is more complicated than knowing what’s on fire. High and low temperatures can change molecules. Sunlight speeds up smoke’s chemical changes, which means the exposed top of a plume will differ from the flames’ source.

Their early research keeps coming back to furan — a toxic organic compound — as a big player in smoke. That isn’t comforting.

“It’s basically like a sunburn for your lungs,” Hu said.

The scientists have continued to collect samples each summer, sometimes via plane and other times from a mountain lookout close to the source. The project is due to end next spring, though they hope to get more time and money.

By understanding smoke, he said, people can better predict its threat for those downwind.

Until then, many health officials will continue sending alerts telling people how to protect themselves from smoke based on monitoring stations that can’t unpack what’s in the sky.

“We could still have the impact without ever seeing the smoke,” Hu said.

The search for clean air

Coefield isn’t waiting for those results to change how the Missoula health department handles smoke.

“We’re reaching a point with climate change where there’s not anywhere you can go and have ideal outcomes for decades to come,” Coefield said. “Wildfire smoke is our primary concern.”

There’s enough information to know particulates in wood smoke are small enough to enter someone’s bloodstream. She said it can make it through the front doors, cracks and ventilation systems of the buildings where people are told to take refuge.

In Seeley Lake, the air got its worst at night. Temperatures dropped and the smoke followed a creek drainage into town before it was trapped in an inversion layer. In a state where air conditioning isn’t a given, most people open their windows through summer nights.

Many who were told to leave their homes because of the fire’s threat slept outside at a campground bordering the town’s namesake lake, where they could see the glow of flames at night.

For the first time, the health department told people to flee from air pollution. Few left. Those who did were gone an average of eight days, according to the UM survey of Seeley Lake residents.

Coefield started getting calls.

There were people who said their boss wouldn’t let them leave. There were worried health providers, parents and teachers. There was someone being discharged from the hospital. There was an elderly couple without a way to leave their home.

There were people who had nowhere to go and those who didn’t have the cash to go. Insurance wouldn’t cover a hotel.

“It’s hard to ask somebody to leave their home, especially when a fire is breathing down their necks that they want to monitor,” Coefield said. “An evacuation might work for a really small community, but what would you do for Missoula? Where would 70,000 people go?”

Coefield looked for a way to bring clean air to Seeley Lake. That meant finding air filters.

“If there’s a community whose water is poisoned by a natural disaster, you find bottled water for them,” Coefield said. “There just wasn’t anything in place for smoke.”

She said she called state agencies and ask for money to buy filters, but that never came.

They emptied the county’s public health emergency fund and spent more than $7,000 on 60 filters for schools.

Coefield called Climate Smart Missoula, which was in a pilot project to provide HEPA room filters to seniors. The nonprofit helped get filters to Seeley Lake clinic patients.

A friend from the American Lung Association offered money for filters, which Coefield directed to a county nearby that needed more help.

There were homes she couldn’t get filters to. Coefield told people if they could afford one filter, they could keep it in the living room through the day and in their bedroom at night. She wondered how many people were never able to get that.

All the while, she tried to predict the smoke.

What’s unseen

Seeley Lake looks like it always has, other than a small burn line in the mountain range above.

“It looks like, what’s the big deal, no structures burned, it’s beautiful here, there’s no obvious after effects,” said Claire Muller, the executive director of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation.

Muller, 32, said there’s an unseen change. Her breath catches when she’s caught off guard by the smell of campfire. Last year, children froze on the playground after seeing smoke on the first day of open burn season.

“A lot of the people who live here are just going to keep on,” Muller said. “We don’t think about it until it happens, for better or worse. I think it’s a component of resilience if you love a place.”

Each county’s response to smoke seems to vary and many continue to rely on the norm: monitor the air, tell people what to expect and to avoid breathing too hard outside when smoke’s in the air.

“The other thing we always tell people is to listen to your body,” said Matt Kelley, with the Gallatin City-County Health Department. “If your body is telling you that the smoke is causing problems, slow down, move inside, take a rest.”

Kelley said the department doesn’t have the staff or money to begin a collection of air filters. He said while there’s interest, he doesn’t know how effective a clean indoor airspace is yet or whether he could find the backing to pay for it in a wider valley with less history of smoke compared to places like Missoula.

There is more to figure out, Coefield said.

She said the Environmental Protection Agency reached out to the Missoula health department to study what indoor air quality is like in buildings with different filtration systems. The agency put sensors in about 18 buildings in Missoula this summer for the study. This September, they shipped the equipment to Hoopa Valley, California, to do the same. The study will continue next year.

Coefield said it’s a good time to work with wildfire smoke, more research is happening than ever. But she said failed state reforms and rejected national grant requests show that progress hasn’t found its way into policy yet.

Meanwhile, she’s planning for the next time.

The department has 125 filtration systems in storage, ready to go to preschools, schools and clinics when needed. But that won’t protect everyone.

“The sad, true fact is the only way to get people to respond to a disaster is if they have a disaster,” Coefield said. “It’s our second summer with hardly any wildfire smoke. I’m happy people have clean air to breath, that’s the best case scenario, but I’m concerned our messaging around the emergency of this is going to fall off. I’m concerned people will be underprepared.”

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