This is the first in a short series of posts by Sarah Coefield, Missoula City-County Health Department air quality specialist, about becoming a smoke-ready community. Stay tuned as we prepare for wildfire season!
Oh, hey! It’s suddenly summer! Have you bought a new HEPA filter, yet?
That was one long, cold slog through spring, but summer has finally arrived, and we can get started on our summer to-do list: get outside and grill delicious foods, spend time on the river, hike in the mountains, enjoy the extra hours of daylight, and make a plan for creating cleaner air spaces in homes and businesses before wildfire season hits!
That’s right, folks. There’s lightning in the hills and we’ve got smoke on the brain. It’s time to become Smoke Ready. (It’s capitalized so you know it’s important.)
Wildfires in our region typically start in mid-July or August, and the clock’s ticking for getting ahead of summer wildfire smoke. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sending out some helpful information for preparing for this year’s wildfire season. Now, the good news is we’re not supposed to have an extreme wildfire season in western Montana this year. It’s supposed to be an average fire year and a potentially cooler and wetter summer than we typically see. (And yeah, that feels right. I, for one, greatly resented turning my heat on in June.) Keep in mind, though, that 2017 was *supposed* to be an average fire year. Also, know who’s predicted to have a bad fire year? Washington. And who’s sent us some of our worst out-of-state smoke? Also, Washington. And who’s already had a large grass fire year? Again, Washington. The point being, even if we avoid local fires (and that’s a big if), there will likely be smoke this summer. I mean, Canada’s been on fire for over a month now. Overachievers, the lot of them.
Wildfire smoke is nasty business. It’s composed of a veritable stew of chemicals and fine particulate matter. Most of the growing field of wildfire smoke health research has focused on the particulate matter in smoke, and really, there’s no good news there. The fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke is super tiny (typically less than 1 micron in diameter), and it can bypass all your natural defenses to get deep into your lungs and even enter your bloodstream where it sets off an inflammatory response. The pollutant is particularly harmful to infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with heart or lung disease. It’s also just bad for everyone, particularly if you’re stuck in it for days or weeks at a time. Folks who are sensitive to the smoke are most likely to experience respiratory effects such as worsening asthma attacks or difficulty breathing. There’s also an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke for those with heart conditions. The increased frequency of long duration wildfire smoke events is a relatively new phenomenon, so we don’t yet know what the long-term ramifications will be for children exposed to smoke. We do know from a study in California that young children (ages 0-4) had a greater spike in asthma-related emergency department visits during a 2007 wildfire than any other age group.
Also, have you noticed how everyone just starts to feel crummy when smoke drags on? When you’re in wildfire smoke for a prolonged period your body goes on the offensive. An inflammatory response is really your body trying to get rid of an invader. The strategy works pretty well when the invader is biological (such as a virus), but it’s less effective against particulate matter. Exposure to fine particulate matter essentially sets in motion a prolonged immunological response.* You feel crummy when you have a cold because your body is fighting off the invader. It’s basically the same thing with smoke (albeit with less mucus). Unfortunately, despite your body’s efforts, the most effective way to really get better is to get out of the smoke.
Happily, we know how to get out of the smoke! Or, more accurately, get the smoke out of our breathing space. Unfortunately, just going inside isn’t necessarily going to cut it. You know how the super tiny fine particulate matter can get into your bloodstream? It can get into buildings, too. The best way to make sure your indoor air is cleaner than the outdoor air is to actively filter out the fine particulate matter. Now, the good news is the technology to filter fine particulate matter exists. This isn’t an unknown realm or impossible task. It takes some planning and an investment in good filters, but most people will be able to create cleaner indoor air when wildfire smoke rolls into town.
I’ll take you into the weeds of creating cleaner indoor air spaces over the next couple weeks. We will go over picking out and using portable air cleaners (PACs) with true HEPA filters, the dos and don’ts of using your central air system to clean the air, some practical considerations for dealing with heat, air conditioners and wildfire smoke, and what we know about creating cleaner indoor air in large buildings.
(If you caught this series last summer, some of the material will seem awfully familiar. Also, I’m assuming you dutifully went out and secured PACs to create a cleaner air room in your home or bought a better HVAC filter for your central air system last year. If so, don’t forget to stock up on new filters for the 2019 wildfire season!)
Also, if you don’t want to wait for my next update, head on over to www.montanawildfiresmoke.org for some great tips on preparing for wildfire season!
*With thanks to Sarah Henderson of the British Columbia Center for Disease Control for that explanation of why we all feel miserable in the smoke. Sarah Henderson is one of my wildfire smoke heroes. And yes, that’s a thing. There are some super rad, passionate scientists working to advance wildfire smoke science. Also, it’s nice to know that Canada sends us excellent science along with all the wildfire smoke.