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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Seeley Lake Doctor Says Take Smoke Health Risks Seriously

Sarah Coefield from the Missoula City-County Health Department talks about the hazards of the smoke in Seeley Lake at a public meeting Thursday, August 10, 2017.
Eric Whitney
Sarah Coefield from the Missoula City-County Health Department talks about the hazards of the smoke in Seeley Lake at a public meeting Thursday, August 10, 2017.

About 250 people filled most of the bleachers at Seeley Lake elementary school Thursday night to get the latest update on the Rice Ridge fire.

Somewhat unusual for a fire meeting was for the crowd to hear from someone from the county health department about air quality concerns, but Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with Missoula City-County Health, said smoke pollution levels have repeatedly hit hazardous levels.

"And we have surpassed that over and over and over again," said Coefield. "So this is beyond what we consider hazardous. We don't have a category for how bad the air is."

Coefield and other health specialists got a lot of questions from people at the meeting. After it was over, I talked to one of them in the school's parking lot, as a pair of firefighting air tanker planes passed overhead on their way to scoop water out of Seeley Lake.

Dr. Todd Fife is a physician at Partnership Health Clinic in Seeley Lake.

Todd Fife: Probably the most important thing is that there are a lot of people at risk due to the air quality here and we really want people to be proactive and preventative before trouble starts.

Eric Whitney: What's the volume of people you’re seeing coming to you with health concerns or health problems related to the smoke?

TF: Well we're seeing several patients a day coming in with lung issues. That's primarily what we're seeing is lung issues and I really suspect that for every one we see in the clinic there are several more a handful out there that are struggling and having just as much problems.

EW: What's the severity? Is it usually something that you can take care of easily have you had to transport any of these people that have had very serious problems because of it?

TF: Thankfully so far, we haven't seen cases that we've kicked to Missoula. Actually we anticipate them coming. Thankfully we're able to handle most of those episodes here locally, but we are recommending for a lot of those people to get out, get themselves out of the smoke because until they do they're going to continue to have problems.

EW: So when I talked to Sarah earlier today from the Health Dept. she was saying one of the reasons why they issued that unprecedented recommendation is because of the cumulative impact there's been so many days when the air has been so bad and has that been your experience too that as there are more and more days you're seeing more and more people? Or people with more problems? Is there a correlation?

TF: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. This week has been by far the worst. Today's probably the worst day out of all of them and we anticipate continuing that direction. I guess I would worry about some of our patients that don't think they have to worry so much, these would be the patients with heart disease, the ones where this could tip them over into critical event and we worry about that, because we see it coming and we want to really avoid it. We've probably had more patients in the clinic today and calling with respiratory things then we've seen all week and this week has been worse than last week, and that was worse than the week before. Today we probably saw five or six and tomorrow likely the same, and for every five or six that we've seen, we've probably taken that many phone calls and given some advice over the phone and I worry about the patients who are not calling and coming in. Cause we know that there...everybody's here and everybody's breathing the same smoke and so I worry about that a lot.

Hundreds attend a fire meeting in Seeley Lake, MT, Thursday, August 10, 2017.
Credit Eric Whitney
Hundreds attend a fire meeting in Seeley Lake Thursday, August 10, 2017.

EW: When I talked to folks at the health dept. they said one of the factors in the decision to recommend that people leave is they're concerned about the capacity of the health care system here in terms of the ability of EMS to respond to a lot of people with health problems from the clinic, you know, not being open on weekends. Do you have concerns about being overwhelmed if it continues?

TF: Yeah, obviously that's always a concern. We haven't got to that level where we're super worried about that, although we have resources in Missoula that we can call on, should that be the case, but obviously weekend's prime time, the clinic is closed, we have a small EMS service, we worry about that. That's an issue. So that's why we're really trying to get this message out to really be proactive on this and if it really means that you sleep elsewhere at night because you have high risk for troubles, you really should take heed.

EW: Is it hard to communicate that or are people reluctant or is it ...

TF: Listen, the people that we see in the clinic, it's real easy. They're really struggling, that's an easy sell because once you get to that point, listen, you're going to continue like you are or are you going to leave the area? It's pretty simple. Pretty straightforward. Health comes first. It clears up a little bit during the day, but this is a consistent thing, I mean this exposure is all day long even though you look outside at noon or one o'clock and it really looks good, there's still a lot of smoke and a lot of exposure all day long and this is a big worry.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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