When the smoke from the Rice Ridge Fire cleared two years ago, a team of researchers from University of Montana began tracking the lung health of local residents. Until recently, there had been no research on the effects of wildfire smoke on the general population. The results of the study are eye-opening for any parent who struggles to keep their child safe from wildfire smoke.
The Rice Ridge Fire burned through the Seeley Lake region of Montana, pushing air quality to never seen before lows, as it burned over 160,000 acres and lasted for nearly two months before rain fell.
Montana tracks the amount of small particulate matter from ash in the air (called PM2.5) and considers air quality “good” with a concentration of 0 – 12 micrograms per cubic meter, unhealthy at 55.5 – 150.4, and hazardous above 250.4. For several days in August 2017, the Rice Ridge Fire caused PM2.5 concentrations that were literally off the charts – with peaks near 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, four times what is considered hazardous.
I spoke to Christopher Migliaccio, a researcher at University of Montana’s School of Pharmacy. Prior to this study, most research into the effects of wildfire smoke on the general population had been retrospective, focusing on hospital admissions and emergency room visits. “This is the first time somebody has been able to follow people right after a smoke event,” says Migliaccio.
The dangers of inhaling particulate matter are well-documented, and can lead to coughing, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, and even heart attacks or premature death. Children, along with people who have heart or lung disease and older adults, are most likely to be affected by particle matter exposure.
The Rice Ridge Fire study found lung function decreased significantly for residents of Seeley Lake over the course of the following year. Of the people who came back to be retested a year later, 90 percent saw a decrease in lung functioning. Nearly a third of these people now had abnormal lung functioning, compared to 17 percent a year earlier.
The researchers were not able to include children in their Rice Ridge Fire study, but they hope to look at the effects of wildfire smoke exposure on children in the future. While its currently recommended that sensitive individuals – including children – decrease their outdoor activity when air quality is poor, researchers are still determining how activity levels affect health.
For now, Migliaccio recommends that people at risk create safe air spaces indoors by using HEPA filters in order to decrease exposure to smoke.
The Rice Ridge Fire study is a concerning first peek into the effects wildfire smoke has on people in affected areas. But as climate change increases the risk of wildfires through warmer temperatures and drier conditions, the issue of smoke inhalation on developing lungs will become even more pressing.
For families like mine across Montana when wildfires rage on and on, climate change isn’t a down-the-road problem. It’s already impacting the health and safety of our friends, neighbors, and children. We don’t have any time to lose. Now is the time we must speak up, and tell our elected officials they must protect our families and act on climate change.