MISSOULA - The numbers are very preliminary, but they re-enforce what we suspected all along. This summer’s fire smoke was bad enough to send more people to the hospital.
We’re all in agreement this summer’s fire smoke was among the worst in decades, with Missoula County surrounded by fires burning hundreds of thousands of acres.
The first results of a report by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is confirming the smoke was making a lot of people sick enough to send them to the hospital.
“Looking specifically at people who had complaints about cough and asthma, shortness of breath, wheezing, other symptoms as smoke-released issues, they found that compared to the same time period in 2016, which as you recall was kind of a quiet smoke year, we didn’t have much smoke, there’s a 2.3 times increase in the number of people going to emergency departments for those respiratory-related issues," said Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield.
This state report is separate from a specific study by the University of Montana analyzing the fire impacts in Seeley Lake, and Coefield says the number really doesn’t come as a surprise because health officials had been hearing reports all summer of people being sickened by the choking, never-ending smoke day after day. But it’s useful because it’s a confirmation of what they were hearing with hard numbers based on ZIP codes for Missoula and Powell counties.
“There’s a lot of ways you can take this and look at it more closely and parse some different things out," Coefield said. "But just from a very first broad look at it there was an increase in the number of people going to emergency departments with respiratory concerns.”
This report, along with the UM study and other research is going to help the DPHHS and other agencies as they consider ways to modify the warning system so advisories can be more useful in years when there’s extreme fire smoke.
“It’s sad that we can see such a clear uptick, just because it means that many more people were suffering compared to when there isn’t smoke," Coefield said. "But it is also nice to have the science and understand what was going on. And hopefully, that will give us some good information for going into future smoke years.”
More detailed reports on this summer’s fire smoke impacts aren’t expected until next year.