MTPR

Fires Push Seeley Lake Air Quality To Unprecedented Lows

Aug 10, 2017

Wednesday, Missoula County's health department made the unprecedented recommendation that an entire town, Seeley Lake, evacuate because of pollution from wildfire smoke. Eric Whitney has more on where that recommendation came from, and how it's being received.

Russ James has lived in Seeley Lake for 60 of his 61 years. He's got a house about 4 miles out of town, and when I caught up with him in the grocery store parking lot, he said the town has heard the health department's recommendation that everyone who can should leave Seeley Lake to protect their health.

"And I think all of us really appreciate the warning, but not all of us are going to leave," James says.

The County says, look, this is really bad for your health you should go, but you say there's no way I'm leaving. Why not?

"I've got 61 good years in now. I don't know that the next week is going to make that big a difference. If I leave and the place burns down, people steal all my stuff, then yeah, that'd make a difference. This isn't that bad," says James.

Air quality specialists like Sarah Coefield disagree. Coefield works for Missoula City County Health. She says she understands that some people aren't going to like hearing her department's recommendation to leave, but it's based on air pollution readings like they've never seen before.

"What's happening in Seeley Lake is really serious," she says.

Air quality monitors across the state measure pollution based on the number of tiny particles per cubic meter of air. Healthy air has 12 micrograms of particles per cubic meter. This morning, Coefield said, "The air is unhealthy in Missoula right now, it's about 80 to 85 [particles per cubic meter]. It is more than 10 times worse than that in Seeley Lake."

And it's been that bad in Seeley Lake for seven out of the first 10 days of August, frequently hitting peaks near 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. It's only abating to healthy levels for an hour or two each day, if that. It's that cumulative impact, Coefield said, that prompted the health department to recommend that people should leave Seeley Lake, or at least try to sleep somewhere else, since the smoke is typically at its worst overnight. She says it was a consensus decision made by a team that included a physician and public health and air quality specialists.

"We realize that we have a responsibility as a health department to give people the very best advice we can and respond to what we are seeing," Coefield says.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Red Cross put a shelter for people fleeing smoke on call southeast of Seeley Lake in Potomac. As of this afternoon, no one was using it. Tonight, Coefield is addressing a public meeting about the fire situation in Seeley Lake. She says unhealthy smoke levels could last for a while.

"We're going to be recommending that people not sleep in Seeley Lake until the Rice Ridge fire stops filling the valley with hazardous levels of smoke. That may be until the fire's out. It may be until the fire moves to a different part of the wilderness and isn't quite positioned to send it's plume straight down the Morrell Creek drainage anymore. It's a little bit up in the air right now. But right now, it's going to be in effect for the foreseeable future this wildfire season," Coefield says.

The phone number for the Red Cross shelter for Seeley Lake smoke evacuees is 1-800-272-6668.