The Rice Ridge Fire was one of the most intense wildfires of the 2017 season and blanketed the Seeley Lake community with dense smoke for weeks.

Research Assistant Professor at the University of Montana, Chris Migliaccio, studied the lung function of several Seeley Lake residents over the past two years to determine if how their health was affected by the prolonged exposure to wildfire.

“We tested people then (in 2017) and then again this past summer (2018) so almost a year later, 11 months exactly, and we found that of the people that came back and got retested, there was a significant drop in their lung function as tested by spirometry,” said Migliaccio. “So, even a year out, there was a decrease in their lung function.”

Migliaccio said the Rice Ridge Fire was unique, in that the town of Seeley Lake was enveloped in thick smoke for days or weeks at a time, depending upon the weather.

“It was a huge fire, but it was also the weather patterns created those inversions that really kept the smoke there a lot longer each day,” he said. “So we know that after that, it greatly affected the lung function of the community.”

After the devastating California wildfires last summer, Migliaccio said interest in his study has come from all over the world.

“We’re getting more and more wildfires, and yes, it’s a worldwide problem,” he said. “I’ve had calls from all over the country as well as internationally. Scientists in Australia have called and wanted to know our findings. My hope is that at least we can impress upon people that this is a serious health risk.”

The Rice Ridge Fire forced Seeley Lake High School to relocate to the Paws Up Resort for a time in 2017, and hardware stores in western Montana ran out of HEPA filters to help clean the air indoors.

Sarah Coefield with the Missoula City County Health Department devoted many of her reports to the serious situation in Seeley Lake during the Rice Ridge Fire.