Most of Montana has spent less time under the haze of wildfires so far this year. But with predictions of lengthening fire seasons out West, researchers are trying to understand what that would mean for the health of communities living with smoke.
The scent of fire settled in the Gallatin Valley Friday morning. That marked 14 days that Bozeman’s seen less-than-ideal air quality since June, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. That’s compared to the town’s 39 days of sub-optimal air last year.
Similar patterns repeated throughout Montana, giving people a break from the nearly 1.4 million acres burned in 2017. That’s compared to the state’s 57,445 acres charred so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Air Quality Meteorologist Kristen Martin with DEQ said it’s hard to predict what Montanans will breathe in this time next year, especially as smoke crosses borders from neighbors battling fire breakouts like Washington, Oregon and Canada.
“We’re certainly seeing a lot of smoky days and evidence the seasons are getting longer, but it is highly variable year to year,” she said.
People breathe in particles all the time. Dr. Paul Smith, a clinical associate professor of medicine with the University of Montana, said the difference is smoke from wood is small enough to navigate deep into lungs where it can do damage.
When air quality hits a middle ground like Bozeman did Friday, health guidelines offer suggestions for vulnerable people like children, older folks, pregnant women and those with chronic heart or lung issues. As the air worsens, short-term solutions include staying indoors, avoiding a lot of physical activities or, if it gets bad enough, leaving all together.
But Smith said no one knows what happens to people in the long run — prone to health issues or not — who are consistently reintroduced to inhaling wildfire smoke.
“We’ve had a fairly good summer, but it’s not over. We’re still without rain and still at very high forest fire risk,” he said. “We have to anticipate this will continue to be a problem, and I don’t think communities are ready. Not everybody has the same amount of resources like air conditioning or filters. Not everybody has the ability to escape by evacuating.”
Breathing in smoke
The call to evacuate typically arrives when flames threaten buildings. But in the height of fires last year, health officials told Seeley Lake residents it was time to go as air quality hit levels so hazardous it passed what the state’s monitoring stations could measure.
After a month of heavy smoke, Chris Migliaccio, an immunologist and professor with UM’s School of Pharmacy, entered Seeley Lake with a team to evaluate the health of people in the town. They recorded short-term signs of the consequences of breathing in smoke along with health and depression surveys.
“They didn’t know what the health effects could be and we don’t know either,” Migliaccio said.
He said existing studies on smoke exposure are primarily retrospective. They rely on hospital records and provider visits for heart or lung issues. But that leaves out what people’s health looked like before smoke came to town, creating a gap in the data.
Migliaccio said it will take charting a community for years to know whether side effects last after skies clear.
“People from around the country are asking whether we can compare what we’re seeing to a community that’s never been exposed, but trying to find a truly no-smoke exposed community in western Montana is pretty much impossible,” Migliaccio said.
This week, Migliaccio returned to Seeley to begin re-screening residents through a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The team also began screening people in Thompson Falls and Hamilton.
“To do this in real time before, during and after a fire, that’s our goal,” he said. “If we at least know what the long-term health effects are, we can find a way to furnish homes or get changes in forest management that helps. But too much is unknown at this point to say what works.”
Understanding that will take time and money. Migliaccio said while the grant’s a big step, there are some holes. For example, it doesn’t cover testing to see whether increased exposure makes people more susceptible to things like asthma.
With the money set to run out after two years, Migliaccio’s hoping other grants follow.
Understanding smoke’s reach
While Migliaccio is hitting the ground, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry Lu Hu of UM is taking to the skies in a flying laboratory to understand the chemistry of smoke.
“Because sampling wildfire smoke in the real world is very challenging — it’s hard to predict and can change rapidly in the field — we don’t know yet what is really coming out of a wildfire plume,” he said.
That uncertainty extends to whether smoke from a forest fire compared to grasslands could have worse consequences on the human body or how far dangerous particles can travel downwind.
Hu is part of an aircraft-based study funded by the National Science Foundation to collect emissions from western wildfire plumes.
He spent six weeks this summer with professors from five universities flying over wildfires. Each flight included 18 scientists monitoring the air in real time. They sampled air from California, Oregon and Montana over 16 flights through the summer.
Hu expects a final report on what wildfires mean for air quality, nutrient cycles, human health and the climate of the communities by 2021. He said the goal is research will improve the nation’s air quality prediction models and better lay out how people should respond when smoke fills the air.
Hu said when he first arrived in Montana in the winter of 2017, it was hard to imagine wildfires were a major contributor to the state’s air pollution. That is, until summer hit.
“I think that’s true for many people. Large fires in places like California are bad for people living there but good for raising awareness,” Hu said. “As more occur in the future as well, society will continue thinking about how to adapt.”
Living with wildfires
By Friday afternoon, 10 out of the state’s 21 air monitoring stations showed moderate to unhealthy air quality. Moderate comes with the warning that “unusually sensitive people should consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion” and falls four spots below hazardous.
Matt Kelley, health officer with the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said the valley’s been fortunate in recent years with few days logged as unhealthy compared to areas to the west like Missoula County in 2017 or to the north like the Flathead this summer.
The health department tracks the state’s air quality and sends warnings when it dips into a category considered risky. While the nation still doesn’t fully understand what wildfires’ reach in the air means for those surrounded by smoke, Kelley said there are ways to reduce the risk.
People can buy air filters for their homes or businesses. He said people should also gauge what the state’s air quality means against their medical history. When a body sends warning signs like a headache or shortness of breath, Kelley said it’s probably time to head inside “and take it easy.”
“We all live in this environment and live with wildfire smoke. We’re never going to be able to completely get away from it,” he said. “It’s really about harm mitigation as much as it is about completely escaping it.”