Preparing for bad air quality during fire season

Posted at 4:19 PM, Jun 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-30 18:19:04-04

MISSOULA – We may not want to talk about it yet, but we must: fire season and fire smoke.

Last year the air quality was so bad that it was off the charts for some communities. That’s why the Missoula City-County Health Department said it’s time to prepare.

“It was our worst wildfire season yet in Missoula itself because we had so many days with as much smoke as we did," said MCCHD Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield. "In Seeley Lake, it was unprecedented, nothing that we had ever seen in at least the lower 48.”

Just looking at the images from last summer is suffocating, and as we wait for this year’s fire season, MCCHD said don’t wait to get ready.

“The odds are pretty great we are going to see some wildfire smoke at some point this summer and we don’t want anyone to be caught wondering how to protect themselves from the smoke after it’s already here,” Coefield said.

If you have central air, try to get a filter with the highest MERV rating, ideally between 13 and 15. The information is on the package.

"Most central systems, they’ll have a MERV 1 or 4, which is great for cat hair, but it’s not necessarily going to be very effective against super-fine particulates," Coefield said.

If you’re not sure if your HVAC system can handle a high-performance filter,  check your owner’s manual or call a heating and cooling expert for advice.

But if you don’t have air conditioning or another way to filter smoke, you might need a HEPA filter placed in the room where you spend the most time. 

When the air starts to get bad, the walls of your house may not be enough to keep you safe. If you do nothing, you might as well be outside.

But a good HEPA air filter should be able to clean the room you’re in within an hour or two while keeping other rooms and windows closed to help it work efficiently.

“It’s important to that you size your unit appropriately for whatever room it’s in. You want to be able to turn the air over two or three times, pushing that air through the filter and so if you have too small of an air purifier for the room, it’s going to struggle to get that turnover done and not get as much cleaning as you would if you got a larger one.”

MCCHD, the American Lung Association, and Climate Smart Missoula all received a $15,000 grant from the MTN News Wildfire Relief Fund. They bought dozens of filters to use in public spaces in the county from schools to daycares and senior centers because, as Coefield said, it’s time to look at wildfire smoke differently.

“Be compassionate for those around you and understand that we are at different levels of our baseline health status and we are not all going to react to smoke the same way. Do what you can to stay safe and while the air is good, go outside and enjoy it!"