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Health Department Officials Strongly Recommend Seeley Lake Evacuation – But Most Choose To Stay

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Missoula City County Health Department officials met with residents of Seeley Lake on Thursday night and recommended with the strongest language possible how important it was to evacuate due to historically toxic wildfire smoke.

Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield said she attempted to communicate just how dangerous the air is that community members are breathing.

“I don’t think they actually understood the magnitude of what they’re looking at explained to them,” Coefield began. “I started by saying on a good day, the fine particulate matter in the air would be about five micrograms per cubic meter in an hour, but yesterday morning it was over 950. They are so far beyond what we consider to be hazardous, we don’t really even have words for the category to describe the type of air they’re living in right now.”

Coefield said the topography of the town in relation to the Rice Ridge Fire will continue to bring a huge volume of smoke into the valley every day.

“And, it’s going to keep happening,” she said. “I’m not sure they really had that laid out to them. That’s why we so strongly recommend that they all leave the area. I know that some people have sent family members away, but others, some even with health problems, have chosen to stay.”

Coefield said the situation is so bad in Seeley lake that she can no longer recommend that people simply stay indoors, because the indoor air quality, without a sophisticated HEPA air filtration system, is just as noxious inside as it is outside.

“I am concerned that concerned that there’s a general sense in parts of the population that it’s not that bad,” Coefield said. “It’s not that ‘it’s not that bad’, it’s worse. It’s the worst we’ve ever seen.”

On the question of whether the health department has the power to order a mandatory evacuation, such as when the sheriff’s office evacuated homes in the path of the fire, she referred KGVO News to the health department director, Ellen Leahy.

KGVO News reached Director Leahy with the question of whether the health department had the power to order evacuations due to the wildfire smoke.

“We do have police powers, some police powers, but I don’t know just how that would play out,” Leahy said. “I’m not looking at a mandatory evacuation due to smoke for a couple of reasons. We have to look at the feasibility when we issue an order, and so we went with recommendations, because the feasibility is that there are different risks and different work and living arrangements for different people. So, the strongest recommendation is get out of that airshed, but if you can’t or don’t want to do that, then stay somewhere else in the evening and in the morning when the smoke is really bad.”

Leahy also recommended that residents create a safe space in the home with a HEPA filtration system, because as long as the Rice Ridge Fire burns, the town of Seeley Lake will be known as having the worst air pollution in the state.

“We will keep at this,” she said. “We have never seen levels like this and so everyone around Missoula knows to stay indoors, but with these levels in Seeley Lake, we can’t say that staying indoors is protective. We can’t give out information that is probably not going to protect you in this environment, so we upgraded and strengthened our recommendations.”


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