For most Montanans, wildfire smoke is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s been almost a year since smoke pollution filled Missoula County, turning the air yellow and creating a public health crisis for residents. But one air quality expert is urging people to start preparing for the smoke before wildfire season arrives.
Sarah Coefield is an air quality specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department.
"Last year one of the things that we noticed happened is folks that did not already have an air purifier before the smoke arrived went to the stores and the shelves were empty because there had been a run on them," says Coefield.
Missoula ranks as the nation’s 12th most polluted city for short term particle pollution, mainly because of wildfire smoke. Coefield says after last year’s severe smoke pollution, people in Missoula are starting to see that pollution as a real public health issue.
"I think that folks are starting to take it more seriously," says Coefield. "Last year the high school cross country runners did their workouts in gyms with filtered air instead of running in the smoke. That was a really big step forward in protecting those kids' health. We are starting to see a lot more people going out and investing in an air purifier with a HEPA filter to create a safe air space and realizing that 'oh I don't have to just be miserable while this is here.' I think that there's been a tendency leading up to even last year of just hunkering down and waiting for the smoke to go away, but some years we're going to have conditions like we had last year and we might have this year where it's hot and dry enough that the fires start in July and burn until it snows."
HEPA - High Efficiency Particulate Air - filters work by pushing air through dense fibers, trapping the small, harmful particles in smoke before they can enter your lungs. Coefield says her main advice going into this year’s wildfire season is to learn how to clean the air in your home or workplace.
"A lot of folks don't have air conditioning and a lot of us don't have central air and so that means we need to take some proactive steps to protect our indoor air space and that if you don't have any central air, a portable air purifier with a True HEPA filter on it can do a lot to really dramatically improve the air quality in the room that it's in. It can pull the fine particulate in the smoke out and create a safe space in that room. You want to make sure if you do get one of those units that it's sized appropriately for the room that it's in. It needs to be able to turn the air over two or three times in an hour to really keep pushing it through that filter to pull out the fine particulate," says Coefield.
As for the cost of those HEPA filters?
"You know it really varies and it depends on how much space you want to clean and how many bells and whistles you want," says Coefield. "The one that I have for my small bedroom was about $90. You can easily spend up to $700 to $1000 on a portable air purifier with a True HEPA to get a unit that's rated for a very large space. The main thing is to make sure it's a True HEPA. There are units being sold with 'HEPA-like' filters that are not a True HEPA and will not give you the same protection that a True HEPA will."
Some members of the population can be especially vulnerable when there's wildfire smoke in the air.
"Definitely anyone with heart or lung disease. Anyone with asthma, COPD, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart conditions, and heart conditions. It's the entire gamut of heart conditions, it's a very broad category really. The elderly are really quite susceptible to wildfire smoke and need to be taking any steps that they can to avoid breathing in the smoke, and then children, they're lungs are still developing and so you don't want to be exposing these developing lungs to pollutants if you can avoid it," says Coefield.
Organizations including the Missoula City-County Health Department, the American Lung Association in Montana and Climate Smart Missoula each received $15,000 grants from the Wildfire Relief Fund following last year’s fire season. Coefield says that money is being used to help get purifiers into public spaces and to educate and inform the public about the importance of having an air purifier.
"I think that it's important to go into this wildfire smoke season that may be coming with an understanding that you can be proactive. Plan now for what you're going to do when the smoke does get here so you aren't reacting and finding shelves are empty or shipping times are slow or there's just a ton of other people also trying to go out and do the same thing and get an air purifier for their homes."
Coefield says it’s also possible this year won’t be as bad as last.
"I'm not some sadist that wants us all to have terrible smoke every year just so I can harp on about HEPA filters," says Coefield. "I want us to have clean air, but if we do have clean air, understand it's a temporary situation. There is not any reason to think we're going to stop having wildfire smoke anytime soon."
Sarah Coefield has been an Air Quality Specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department since 2010.
You can find more information about how to get ready for wildfire season and read up-to-date air quality reports from the Missoula City-County Health Department website here.