As Wildfires Burn, Clearing the Air For Montana Schoolchildren

Montana school officials say the air quality from the fires was unlike anything they have ever seen.

Wildfires burn on Lolo Peak near Missoula, Montana, in September.

As wildfires burned through more than a million acres of Montana, plumes of smoke drifted from the western mountains across a large portion of the state. The air quality has endangered residents with heart or lung disease, children and the elderly.

Even healthy people may have suffered respiratory symptoms, reduced lung function and pulmonary inflammation from the exposure. Smoke from the wildfires contains tiny particles of ash that can get deep into the lungs. These particles are respiratory irritants and exposures can cause coughing, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Particulate matter can also affect the body’s immune system and make it more difficult to remove inhaled foreign material from the lungs, such as pollen and bacteria. The main public health concern from even short-term exposure to smoke is from the exposure to particulate matter.

For those with asthma, the particulates can trigger an asthma attack or episode.

Especially at risk are children with respiratory illnesses. Asthma is the most common respiratory illness in children and is also a leading chronic disease among children and adolescents. On average, in a classroom of 30 children, about 3 are likely to have asthma.

Montana school officials say the air quality from the fires was unlike anything they have ever seen. At Florence-Carlton school in the southwestern corner of Montana, even the school’s hallways were smoky. In other Montana schools, restless children were kept in from recess day after day. In schools with no air conditioning, it was a toss-up whether the air quality was better in the school gym or outside, or if the windows could even be opened in the classrooms.

As thousands of firefighters and hundreds of Montana National Guard members battled the wildfires, another team raced across the state to help protect the health of the children attending Montana’s elementary schools.

The American Lung Association’s Dr. Marcy Ballman led an effort to deliver HEPA filters to schools based on those closest to the fires and the schools that faced continued exposure to smoke. A fan with a HEPA filter pulls the air in and pushes it out while filtering the particles out of the air.

Just a few years ago, Dr. Ballman completed her dissertation at the University of Montana that gave her unique insight into the needed wildfire response. She had been working with families in homes with smoke exposure from wood stoves. Her doctorate in toxicology focused on the study of indoor coarse particulate matter that can settle in lungs. Responding to this health crisis, Dr. Ballman was surprised that her specific expertise was called upon to help the Montana schoolchildren.

Children still show up in classrooms where you can literally smell and taste the smoke.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana worked with the American Lung Association to get the HEPA filters to those in need. The partners created a list of schools closest to the fires and with continued exposure to smoke, then delivered 150 air filter units to schools across the state.

“While many Montana families had been evacuated from their homes, every day they continue to go to work in poor air-quality conditions and children still show up in classrooms where you can literally smell and taste the smoke,” says BCBSMT employee Randi Heigh, who along with her coworkers played a key role in the HEPA filter distribution project. The team also delivered 10 HEPA air filter units to Florence Elementary earlier in the summer. “This was such an important mission because these kids and their families were living with this day in and day out all summer long.”

Dr. Ballman mobilized BCBSMT’s community relations team to pack up and deliver the HEPA filters. Trading needles for filters, the BCBSMT employees deployed the mobile Care Van®, which is usually used to provide no- or low-cost immunizations to children and their families in rural and underserved areas, as well as central locations in populated areas. Care Van Administrator Jamey Petersen played a pivotal role in delivering the filters.

But it is not an easy road in Montana. While Montana is big and beautiful, the towns are far apart, the mountain paths are winding and long. Going from Missoula to West Glacier to Eureka and several more stops along the way to Lincoln, the team drove more than 600 miles across a huge geographic area in just over 48 hours to deliver the filters.

“I knew there were displaced children and families with asthma and allergies that were struggling due to the extreme conditions,” Heigh says. “This project immediately helps kids in the classroom allowing them to focus on their studies, rather than the ability to breathe.”

This isn’t a one-time strategy for the American Lung Association and BCBSMT to work together. In 2016, the two began the Enhancing Care for Children with Asthma initiative to deliver training and resources to health care clinics serving large numbers of kids with asthma.

Their response to the wildfires, Heigh adds, “will also have a lasting impact on the lives of families with children who have chronic conditions affected by poor air quality.”

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