Montana Public Radio

Smoke Got You Down? You're Not Alone

Sep 16, 2020

The deadly wildfires scorching the west coast have produced smoke that has reached the east coast and Europe. The smoke started seeping into Montana last weekend. 

Health care professionals say it’s taking a toll on our bodies and our minds. MTPR's Edward O'Brien reports.

The Lolo National Forest’s Pattee Canyon Recreational area is an popular getaway that’s just a hop, skip and a jump outside Missoula’s hustle and bustle. Dog walkers, hikers and mountain bikers flock to the Crazy Canyon trailhead every day to exercise their bodies and clear their minds. By 4 p.m. on almost any given afternoon, the parking lot is packed with people jockeying for a coveted parking space. 

Tuesday, however, was not a typical afternoon. 

Two cars sit at the trailhead. Bird and squirrel chatter replace human conversation. The air quality is awful. The smoke is eye watering and leaves a sickly feeling in the belly. 

"You’re gonna feel really crummy," says Missoula City-County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield.

"There are very, very fine particles that can bypass your natural defenses and actually make it into your bloodstream, and it can set up an inflammatory response, which is essentially your body trying to get rid of the invader."

Coefield says that applies to our pets just as it does people. She adds these smoke events are as tough on our psyche as they are the body.

"It’s depressing to know that the air is really harmful to you right now; knowing that breathing is putting your health at risk. We don’t get to not breathe. There’s also a wear and tear on your spirit."

Since Sunday I’ve virtually eliminated all my outdoor time. I’m already feeling yanked out of my routine, cooped up, bored, irritable and a little depressed. I asked Dr. Jen Robohm if that makes me some kind of a weirdo.

"No. You’re not a weirdo. We know it’s a threat to our health. It makes the sky gray. It blocks out the sun. A lot of us go outside to exercise or to just be in wide open spaces — it’s how we take care of ourselves and it’s not even safe to be outside right now."

Robohm is a clinical psychologist and a faculty member of Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana. She helps prepare family physicians for service in Montana’s rural and under-served areas.

"We live for the summer and the fall because our winters are so long. This [smoke event] just sort of extends that. And I don’t know about you, but for me it also just raises, kind of, that existential threat of climate change, because it's out there and it’s a reminder."

Robohm is now helping develop an online training project to prepare healthcare workers to treat the physical and mental health impacts related to climate change. 

Her advice to make it through this immediate smoke event?

"I do think physical activity is still really important if that’s possible for folks. I do believe human connection is a real antidote. Reaching out to folks, whether it's on Zoom or over the phone — it’s certainly not the same as getting a hug and being together — but I think it’s the best thing we have right now and we have to maximize it as much as we can."

Susie Turner is Director of Missoula’s The Peak Health and Wellness Center. She says her gym offers a sense of community that comes with working out. 

"We have seen an uptick in foot traffic the last couple of days that clearly is due to the smoke. Which has been great for us, that we’re able to provide an indoor safe facility for people to come in and work out."

Turner says the smoke has prompted several new clients to purchase memberships. 

Montana gyms are still limited to 75 percent capacity under state health directives and strict social distancing guidelines is required.

Meanwhile, back at Missoula’s Crazy Canyon trailhead I happen to meet the owner of one of the two cars sitting in the parking lot.

Myroslav Yanko and Anastasiia Raibet, originally from Ukraine, now live in Portland, OR. They’ve been suffering with air quality indexes measuring far worse than in Montana. 

"Just regular shopping, like groceries or something, you have to walk like 10 minutes to the grocery store and you get back home with a headache and eyes burning."

Yanko and Raibets needed a break, hopped in their car and made tracks for Missoula. The smoke refugees enjoyed several extended hikes in Pattee Canyon and said Missoula’s air quality was a welcome break compared to what they've endured back home in Portland. Myrosalv and Anastasia planned to return home Wednesday.

Yanko: "Thank you Montana for hosting us."

Anastasiia: "Yes! It was like heaven for us for these days."

The wildfire smoke isn’t healthy and certainly not enjoyable, but it could also be worse. A lot worse.