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Lolo peak fire

Last summer, motorists on U.S. Highway 93 passed through a plume of smoke from the Lolo Peak fire as flames from the fire, and from backfiring operations, pushed toward the valley floor between Lolo and Florence on Aug. 17. Air quality experts recommend buying air filters now for homes in expectation of this year's wildfires.

Wisps of smoke drifted through Missoula Friday morning, pushing the air quality to “moderate” and providing impetus to prepare in advance of the upcoming wildfire season.

Trent Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Montana, said his office was trying to assess the source of the smoke, and their best guess is that it’s coming from some of the large wildfires in California. So far this year, six fires have burned across 112,064 acres in California, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency due to “extreme peril” to people and property.

“We kind of have a southwest wind blowing, and there is a smaller fire near Wenatchee (Washington) that could be a part of it, but the bulk seems to be from California," Smith said.

Moderate air quality conditions can aggravate existing heart or lung diseases and respiratory ailments in sensitive individuals.

Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, also wondered about the source of the smoke on Friday.

“The smoke was really high in the sky, but it is a reminder,” Coefield said. “Before it gets too terrible, it’s time to be proactive and get prepared for what could be a long fire season.”

She recommends that people invest in a standalone indoor air purifier that uses a “High Efficiency Particulate Air” or HEPA filter. They range in cost from $80 for a small, one-room model to more than $1,000 for a filter for an entire house, and should be able to recirculate a room’s air through the filter two or three times per hour.

The paper-like HEPA filters can last for about two or three years before they need to be changed, and can remove 99.97 percent of airborne particles down to 0.3 microns. A wood-smoke particle is about 1 micron, or about .00004 inch.

“It does need to be a true HEPA,” Coefield said. “There’s some that are HEPA-like, but they won’t be as effective in removing small particulates. There are some on the market that say they can take out the smaller particles, but I heard they don’t turn over the air as quickly.”

People who have a central air system can purchase a “Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value” or MERV air filter. They’re rated on a scale of 1 to 20, based on their effectiveness, and Coefield said starting at MERV 13 they will begin to remove fire particulates.

“At the higher MERV rating you need to change the filters more often because they’re catching more stuff,” Coefield said. “So if I put in a higher MERV for the wildfire season, then go to a lower one afterward, I don’t have to change it as often.”

A MERV 13 replacement filter starts around $20.

Coefield urged people to think ahead if they’re looking for filters.

“Last year I heard from a lot of folks who went to buy one from the store and the shelves were empty. If we get super-lucky this year, we won’t have much smoke, but we will in the future,” she said.

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Last year, the smoke from wildlfires billowed early into western Montana and stayed for most of the summer. The smoke in Seeley Lake from the Rice Ridge fire was so overwhelming it maxed out the county’s air quality monitors 20 times; in July and August, Hamilton experienced 51 days of moderate to unhealthy air quality for all groups of people from a variety of fires, including Lolo Peak.

Chris Migliaccio, an immunologist and research assistant professor at the University of Montana, is gearing up this year to continue a study on the impacts of what the extended smoke exposure does to the average person.

In 2017, they started tracking some Seeley Lake residents to document changes in their physical and mental health from the wildfire smoke. His group recently received additional funding to continue the study this summer with residents in Hamilton and Thompson Falls — two areas where residents often suffer from extended smoke.

"Presently, we will be having a recruitment in Hamilton (on July 11) and then another in Thompson Falls in August," Migliaccio wrote in an email. "We are returning to Seeley Lake (July 18) to follow up with our group of residents that we initially screened last year."

Coefield added that this is also a good time for outdoor recreation before the smoke descends and the summer heats up.

“Get outside now, while it’s good, as much as you can so you don’t feel like you’ve lost the whole summer when the smoke arrives.”

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