Health officials said Wednesday that Seeley Lake residents should leave the area to escape the unprecedented levels of hazardous smoke funneling in from the Rice Ridge fire.
The Missoula City-County Health Department has issued a strong recommendation to evacuate and cancel events and school athletic practices that can't be moved to areas with cleaner air.
Residents should consider sleeping at a shelter in the Potomac Valley, said Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist with the department.
She said this is the strongest message the department has ever sent out about dangerous air during a wildfire. "The best advice that we have when air is as bad as Seeley Lake is seeing is to get out of it,'' Coefield said.
In a news release Wednesday, Coefield said the levels of wildfire smoke in the Seeley Lake area are at levels never before recorded in Missoula County. Since Aug. 1, the air quality in Seeley Lake has reached hazardous levels seven times.
“That means they have had clean(ish) air to sleep in only twice in more than a week,” Coefield said.
Pollution levels can be monitored at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s website.
Vulnerable populations — children, older adults, people who are pregnant and those with lung or heart disease — could be dealing with serious health effects. This can include reduced lung function, heart attack and stroke.
Even people who are strong and healthy are going to be feeling the effects of the smoke, Coefield said.
While other communities with this type of air pollution can send residents to hospitals, Seeley Lake has a single health clinic, which is closed on weekends, and a relatively small EMS team, Coefield said.
“It is therefore essential that residents of Seeley Lake take steps to protect themselves,” Coefield said. “The most effective way to protect yourself from this type of wildfire smoke is to leave the area.”
School athletic practices and events should be cancelled or moved to an area with clean air until the smoke passes, Coefield said. Moving the practices indoors will not be enough because the smoke is inside as well, Coefield said.
“Any student athletes who have been breathing this smoke at night will have compromised health and should not be exerting themselves until they’re no longer subjected to daily smoke pollution,” Coefield said.
The Red Cross is standing by at Potomac Greenough Community Center, 29827 Potomac Road. Anyone interested in staying at the shelter may call the Red Cross of Montana at 1-800-272-6668. People must call before they arrive, Coefield said.
If people cannot leave the area, Coefield said the health department recommends making the air in a home cleaner by using a HEPA air filter.
For more information, people can also call 406-258-4636.
Rice Ridge fire: The next public meeting on the fire will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Seeley Lake Elementary School. Fire information booths will be staffed at the Valley Market and Rovero’s Hardware Store on U.S. Highway 83 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Sunrise fire: On Wednesday evening, the Sunrise fire was 20 percent contained and had the potential to grow to the north and the south along uncontrolled fire edges over the next 24 hours, threatening structures. The fire has grown to 14,600 acres. An evacuation order is still in effect. Roads in the area are closed.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at Superior High School for evacuees.
Sapphire Complex: A public meeting on The Sapphire Complex fires was scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday for updates on the fire. Rock Creek Road from I-90 south to Harry’s Flat reopened at 6 a.m. on Wednesday. Upper Willow Creek Road is open to local traffic only. All other closures remain the same. The Sapphire Complex is still burning with over 25,000 acres lost.