This summer, Missoula County had its worst wildfire smoke season on record. It’s unclear how exactly that impacted the health of county residents, both as the fires were burning and longer term, but researchers are starting to pull in some data.
Rachel Hinnenkamp is an epidemiologist with the state health department. She’s been tracking how many people went to emergency rooms complaining of respiratory-related symptoms during the 2017 wildfire season. And she found that this year, that number more than doubled for people who live in Missoula and Powell counties, compared to last year.
“The number of visits in 2016 was 163 and that increased to 378. That’s a statistically significant increase," Hinnenkamp says.
While Hinnenkamp can’t say definitively whether all of those ER visits were directly related to the Rice Ridge Fire, she says that most came after about a month of smoke.
Jean Loesch and her family live right in Seeley Lake, which had the worst smoke. She has ten children altogether. All are adopted or in her foster care. And they know what it’s like to have respiratory problems that just won’t quit.
Loesch says that during the summer, the smoke was so thick outside, they couldn’t see the trees across the street. So they stayed inside. But it was still really hard to breathe.
“These guys were miserable," Loesch says. "I think each one of them ending up having to go to the doctor, for respiratory. Everyone had a puffer."
She says most of her kids didn’t need inhalers before, and her family is usually pretty healthy. But not this year.
“When we started school, our family got sick," her daughter chimes in. "Me and Nivea got sick on Saturday and Sunday. Perry and Ally got sick on Monday."
Loesch says she got pneumonia and the kids had bloody noses. And now, even with the smoke long gone, she says they still have problems.
"They’ll wake up hacking. They’ve all been sick. Whether it was a cold - I’ve had to take them in for upper respiratory infections," Loesch says.
Loesch and her kids aren’t the only ones still suffering. Joy Meyer is a nurse that works at the Partnership Health Center clinic in Seeley.
She says they started seeing a bump in respiratory symptoms that started about the time the smoke was actually leaving.
“Where you started to see a lot of people coming in that weren’t desperately having trouble breathing, but now they were having a lot of colds," says Meyer. "And there’s people with smokers coughs, the dry hacking cough, that they’ve never had before.”
The thing about that kind of chronic air pollution is, the more you’re in it, the worse it is for you. But no one knows exactly what residents can expect, because the air has never been this terrible before.
“The smoke that we saw this year in Seeley Lake was like nothing we’d ever seen," says Sarah Coefield.
Coefield is the air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department, and part of her job it is to quantify just how bad the air was.
She says pollution from wildfire smoke is typically measured as the concentration of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, in the air. The EPA says a daily average concentration of more than 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air is unhealthy.
The county’s air quality monitors max out at 1000 micrograms. They were built with the expectation they’d never have to measure concentrations that high.
But in Seeley Lake this summer, Coefield says the monitors pegged out 20 different times.
"So there were 20 hours that we don’t know what the actual number was over 1000," she says.
Most public health guidelines aim to protect groups that are the most vulnerable to wildfire smoke in the short term - children, pregnant women, older folks, and those with chronic heart and lung diseases.
But no one knows what that off-the-charts summer in Seeley means even for people who aren’t at high risk, says Chris Miglaccio. He’s an immunologist and professor in the University of Montana’s School of Pharmacy.
“That length at that level of exposure - usually these exposures are maybe a couple weeks at high levels. This was over a month at really unprecedented levels. We have no idea what the long term effects are," Miglaccio says.
He's part of a team of UM researchers who are trying to start filling in those holes in knowledge. Working with the county health department, they’ve started tracking a group of Seeley Lake residents, and are documenting changes in their physical and mental health over time.
One thing Miglaccio predicts they might see is an uptick in respiratory infections because those fine particulates in wildfire smoke can harm and even kill cells in our lungs that get rid of anything bad we breathe in. Which means more compromised immune systems.
“I can’t tell you - you will be susceptible. You will get the flu," Miglaccio says. "But because of these exposures you’re probably at an increased risk. But again, we haven’t done these studies. And that’s something we want to follow with this Seeley Lake cohort we’ve started building up. Let’s follow them. Let’s see how they do this winter.”
Miglaccio and his team will be closely watching what the big health issues end up being, in which populations, and how long it takes for residents to get back to baseline.
Whatever they glean about those long term impacts, the goal is for public health officials to be able to lean on that data and make more informed recommendations so Montanans can better protect themselves the next time the smoke rolls in.