"Air Will Find A Way"

How bad is wildfire smoke? An air quality specialist explains.

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As readers of this newsletter know, I’m somewhat fixated this summer on wildfire smoke which is choking huge swaths of the western United States. There’s so much of it that plumes from Oregon and Canada have wafted into the midwest and east coast. Even New York City experienced terrible air quality last week. This Sunday, I wrote an essay for the New York Times about the way that fire season is cannibalizing another season: summer.

For the piece, I spoke with Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department. Coefield writes this daily smoke report email for the county that has been somewhat of lifeline for me. Each day she tells us how much smoke to expect and when wind and air pressure patterns will grant us relief. Plus, she’s funny and tried to make the best of a bad situation.

Initially, I hoped to get some context from her about how bad extreme smoke events are getting — is it really worse or does it just feel worse? But the conversation went everywhere. And I learned a ton — about ventilation, long-term smoke effects on health, and about…uh…cooking Brussels sprouts (you’ll see). We talk a lot about Montana, but don’t let the local focus dissuade you — if you live in a place where wildfire smoke is becoming common in the summers, there is a great deal of actionable information here, much of it was new to me.

I’m new to the West but you’re a native Montanan whose job it is to pay attention to air quality issues. You’ve got some perspective on the wildfire and smoke crisis we’re seeing. It feels to me like things are getting worse…but is it? How should we contextualize what we’re seeing in the western U.S.

So, one of the things people in my line of work are running up against is that extreme smoke events, while a couple decades old, are still relatively new. 2011 was my first wildfire smoke year doing this job but I’ve been tuned into it forever. Growing up, my father was the air quality meteorologist for state of Montana. I grew up in this world. When I was little, we’d have days where we’d need to stay inside because my dad would put out an air quality alert for smoke. But it was very rare.

2000 was when wildfire smoke season kicked into gear here. My college roommate called it “the smiting of Montana.” It was a big year for the state to learn about the smoke and how to message. So far, the bad years have been in 2000 and 2003, which was bad. In 2007, we had a long fire season. Not awful but long. In 2012, the fires didn’t start until August but we had smoke into October. In 2015, there was a high pressure event in June that and we had terrible smoke for a week. Then, 2017 hit and blew everything we’d seen out of the water. It was the worst smoke event Missoula county had seen and we were completely unprepared for it. I think a lot of us thought it was not something we would ever see again, but of course we know there’s actually no reason we won’t see it again and again. There’s just a ton of wilderness that surrounds our community.

So, it seems like it’s getting worse. Do you feel like states like Montana are prepared for what’s to come?

A big hurdle is that there’s no funding source from the government for trying to address wildfire smoke. We have to apply for dedicated grants — there’s no dedicated funding source.

When we had the 2017 smoke event, and things were quite bad, I couldn’t get money to do anything. In a place like Montana FEMA is not going to come in to save the day. I was at an after disaster workshop for Montana state emergency management after 2017 and it was clear that Montana didn’t hit certain indicators for FEMA disaster intervention.

What are the indicators?

They didn’t say what those indicators are. My guess is population. But that’s all it is — a guess. But that was the worst wildfire smoke event we’d ever seen. But there were other big national disasters at the time. Like, when Seeley Lake, a town of 1,200 people is experiencing a smoke event, you compare that to Hurricane Harvey hitting a city like Houston. Proportionally, it is hard to send resources to small areas.

That means we have to be locally prepared and able to cope for smoke events. Now, we can apply for FEMA grants. We’ve applied, but didn’t get it. But I don’t want to throw all the feds under the bus — there are amazing people at the EPA who we work with who’ve been great.

Still, it sounds incredibly frustrating.

It’s frustrating. But what’s especially frustrating is that there are no guaranteed protections anywhere, especially during smoke events. There’s no indoor air quality standard in America. There’s nothing to say, ‘your indoor air has to be clean'.’ Employers, schools aren’t required to guarantee certain indoor air quality. But the technology does exist to achieve high levels of air quality. We aren’t trying to invent something that’s new. But, because terrible smoke events are relatively new in the grand scheme of things, we’re way behind on community-level protections.

There are some silver linings. In February, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers released HVAC standards and guidance for schools and a planning framework for smoke events in commercial buildings. There’s a movement to help get cleaner indoor air and that’s exciting. I have some hope we can make lots of progress on that front. But we aren’t there yet or in time for this devastating wildfire smoke year.

Do you think this year is increasing awareness? I feel like last summer’s fires in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest were so bad that it was a wake-up call for people who didn’t quite understand what was happening in this part of the country. And this year…it’s so bad…and so early. I feel like, living here, I’ve been radicalized by these fires. I see it as such a threat. You seem somewhat optimistic we’re moving in the right direction though, awareness-wise.

Extreme smoke events are going to plague mountain valley communities. This is where you see the worst smoke. At night, it rolls downhill into valley and it can’t go anywhere and people are chewing it all night. The issue is that little, rural mountain communities don’t garner a lot of media attention — or any attention at all. Now, I should note that, most of the time, these communities enjoy the lack of attention. But when you have terrible smoke events, they doesn’t really get looked at by the outside as a public health emergency. And they are.

How bad is it to inhale all this wildfire smoke? I know it’s obviously not good for anyone to live in a cloud of it for an extended period of time…but do we know just how bad it is? I know there’s an ongoing study that the University of Montana is doing on the long-term effects of smoke on residents in Seeley Lake [a small Montana town that measured fifty days of “unhealthy” air quality during 2017’s Rice Ridge Fire] and it doesn’t look good.

It’s a hard area to study because you need big, longitudinal studies and those take time. Nobody has done these big studies before. What the Seeley Lake study is doing is taking resident’s lung function and compared it to what lung function should be. That specific research group had grant money to get some “before fire season” data and the idea is that they will keep coming back and visiting the residents to test. But it’s so hard to do a study this early into a natural phenomenon.

There’s a study out of California that looked at rhesus macaque monkeys that were in cages during a 2008 smoke event. Some of the infant primates happened to be outside and researchers followed them the next ten years or so and found some disturbing effects from the exposure: Stiffened lungs, altered immune systems. And some passed these problems onto their offspring.

Data with young children seems particularly troubling. Studies looking at hospitalizations and ER admissions following smoke events shows that children between ages 0 and 4 had the largest amount of asthma admissions compared to other age groups. It’s all bad news. Every new study about wildfire health effects is: It’s bad. And, you know, if you’re like us right now sitting around and breathing this smoke in, you read a study like that and say, ‘yeah, checks out!’

Going back to air quality. It seems like there’s some covid overlap, no? There’s been some real focus, especially in indoor public spaces, with upgrading ventilation and HVAC systems to filter for the virus. Do you think this will help with wildfire smoke?

One weird silver lining of covid is the HVAC upgrades. But, again, it’s all new. Locally, at least, not a whole lot of HVAC people have had training on what to do with wildfire smoke. Not very many places with wildfire smoke have sturdy plans in place to protect indoor occupants. An engineer from our department went around to inspect a lot of HVAC systems and it wasn’t great. For a lot of people, HVAC systems are out of sight, out of mind. There’s a fair bit of deferred maintenance. And that’s a problem if air quality outside is bad.

What did the inspector see?

HVAC dampers were broken into the open position, meaning there was no way to stop smoke from coming inside these buildings. In others, you see so many bad filters — old filters or small ones. A thing about really good HVAC filters is that they are more expensive and not required to install. And so you have air quality in public buildings — offices, other gathering spaces — that isn’t so great.

Here’s the thing: HVAC systems aren’t sexy but they’re really important. It’s very natural, if you haven’t been taught this stuff, to assume that when you walk into a building the air is safe. You walk in and there’s air conditioning and it’s cooler and you think it’s all good. But it’s so much more complicated than that. We’re talking filter upgrades, positive pressure, door/window control. There’s a lot to keep track of. Most people don’t even know.

Ok, so commercial buildings are a work in progress. What about regular folks and their homes. Do you see people adapting to fire season and buying purifiers?

It’s pretty scattershot. My friends, who’ve heard me lecture on this, some of them have filters or air cleaners. But I’ll ask my neighbors — I have one in her 70s and she didn’t seem to think one was necessary. I think, as we experience more of these events, air cleaners and protections will become more common. People will learn what they can do. A big problem though is that, if id doesn’t smell smokey, people don’t think they need to clean their air. But even if you don’t smell it, you can just look outside. Is it hazy? The air is bad! You can see it.

This is something I’ve heard from neighbors — the arguments about whether to leave the windows open at night. It’s so hard to know what to do. When to exercise outside, how long to leave the windows open. It’s a lot.

Yeah, and that’s the easier part. What’s hard is the indoor air quality. When smoke events happen, we want to tell people to go inside — to the mall or the movie theater. We say, ‘go inside where there’s clean air’ and we don’t even know if it is clean! I mean, I want to know: How long do consumer grade filters last in a smoke event? Honestly, we don’t totally know this. We’ve got a study going on this topic but it got delayed by covid.

You anticipated one of my questions. I was going to ask you how often we need to change air cleaner filters during smoke season. Wild that we don’t totally know.

In 2017, we loaned air cleaners to elementary school up in Seeley Lake, where the smoke was so, so awful. But we were so new to these extreme events. I mean, in 2017, I knew nothing about HVAC systems or filters. We were just trying to do whatever we could. And we didn’t even think about replacing those filters in the cleaners we loaned partway through their smoke event. And so we got the cleaners back that fall and the HEPA filters were just clogged. Soot was coating the insides of the machines. And so you could just see that the nasty, dirty air found ways around the filter. That’s the thing about wildfire smoke: Air will find a way. I like to say that it’s like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Air will find a way.

This all reminds me a bit of covid. We have these intense, scary events that force us to rethink parts of our lives we never considered. Listening to you, I’m now thinking about ventilation like I never have before. It’s wild to have to be aware of the air around you. And yet…it makes sense!

One thing folks should know about humans is that we are filthy animals. We make so much of our own pollution. So we should be looking to keep air clean and avoid adding to our air pollution during smoke events. Here’s a good example — stove top cooking puts particulate in the air. Like, roasting Brussels sprouts and browning them is actually throwing a lot of particulate into your air. Again, people might not think this.

Wait. Brussel sprouts?!

[Laughs] I love Brussels sprouts! I saw a study looking at sources of indoor particulate matter and a standard thing for creating particulate is Roasting Brussels sprouts. Smoke comes out of my oven because want them crispy. And, well, you’re burning biomass when you’re doing that. But, honestly, it’s fine when you’re not in an extreme smoke event. Because, you just open your windows and the outdoor air helps.

I’m still hung up on your anecdote about 2017 and how experts were still kind of flying by the seat of their pants. It seems to indicate to me just how new these horrible smoke events really are.

It’s all so new. We’re learning at an accelerated pace but the smoke events are accelerating, too. In 2017, we knew the air cleaners could be helpful. But we also assumed indoor buildings had cleaner air. But quickly we tested and found that many spaces — the old library, the senior center, and the high school and it was like, ‘Oh no! This is bad news!’

We knew nothing. I didn’t know how HVAC worked. We have learned a lot, locally. Some states, like Oregon and Washington have wildfire smoke emergency response plans. I don’t know when MT is going to get onboard with any of this stuff on a state policy level. My guess is it might be a while and I think more parts of the state will need to be impacted by smoke. But, nationally, we’re seeing a good sense of urgency and drive to get things moving. There are still short falls, like how there’s no indoor air quality standard.

I will confess that, last week, when the wildfire smoke wafted into New York City, I had these conflicting feelings. First, I was glad they were experiencing it, because I think it helps build solidarity. But also, it was like, a gentle amount of smoke exposure and I was like, ‘you guys have no idea!’ I don’t like that I’m so bitter. And yet!

These extreme smoke events have been getting longer, bigger, and more people are affected. 10 to 15 years ago, it was happening in small small rural mountain valleys. Now, we have these massive wildfires. The Bootleg Fire in Oregon is insane right now. It is impacting far more people than have ever been impacted by smoke. We’re starting to see this awakening. Right now we don’t have the policy to address smoke response but we do have the technology.

Part of human nature is that it’s hard to empathize until it happens to you. I think, even with lovely people who care so much about climate change, it is still ‘out of sight out of mind’ for people outside this region of the country. Academically, they know fires keep happening. But what people don’t realize is that, when you go in office you are still breathing it. Outdoor workers, laborers, are breathing literally toxic air all day.

If you live out here, you know it’s bad for you but you can’t get away from it because, well, it is air. And so it wears on you. It wears on your body, but it wears on you mentally. Because of my job, I know the indoor air quality is not much better than the outdoor air quality. And I’m sitting in it all day. And then there’s the duration. The smoke and fires here started July 8th. And fire season lasts until it snows. In 2017, when it was so bad, we got lucky that it snowed in September. Think about that. We’re waiting for snow to put this out. It’s not great. It’s not something I’m excited about. I’m a smoke nerd. So this is my Super Bowl. I spend all year thinking about this stuff and so it’s my time and I love my job. But, emotionally, I’m already worn down and it’s 12 days into this fire season.

Oh lord. 12 days. It feels like, honestly, it feels like we’ve been at this for months.

It feels like it must be mid-August. It’s tough. In this area — and in much of the West — lack of air conditioning is a problem. It means we have to let smoke inside because the smoke is bad, but the heat will kill you first.

Before I let you go, I want to ask, are you optimistic that we’ll all become savvier about extreme smoke events? I mean, that states, individuals, the federal government, will all wake up to it and address the parts we can…like ventilation?

There’s definitely momentum. We’ll get there. The thing we need to address is that this is driven by climate change. The wildfire smoke discussion has to be about why we are where we are. This is a disaster of our own making. The impact of climate change is here. Wildfires last months longer than they used to. The forest is not in great shape. We have way too many years of constant fires and suppression efforts, timed with rising temperatures and hot, dry summers. This is something we can try address with better forestry and more prescribed burning. But, ultimately, this is something we’ve done to ourselves. It is not a fun situation to be in. For my part, I can’t make smoke go away but I can tell ppl how to navigate it.