The first clue something might be awry came in the morning email.
“Our monitor went down after the 7 a.m. hour, likely due to being clogged by the particulate,” Missoula County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield wrote in her Aug. 3 air quality update. “Based on losing touch with our monitor, it’s probably safe to say the air in Seeley Lake is crazy bad.”
The monitors flashed 900 — for a particulate reading of 900 micrograms per cubic meter of air — which was deemed so unlikely by state air quality programmers they used it as the error code.
The hourly average over the night of Aug. 3 topped out at 978. State programmers have since reworked the monitoring code.
Coefield and her fellow air specialist Ben Schmidt talked with U.S. Forest Service employees, the Seeley Lake Health Center director and others on what exactly to do, finally deciding to recommend that residents leave.
“We don’t have the right word or categories to describe the air in Seeley Lake right now,” Coefield said. “Looking at Seeley Lake, the hazardous message was no longer appropriate.
“It’s important for people to respect the harm that pollution does to their bodies.”
It’s Coefield’s job to send out air quality messages for the county. Every summer for the last six years her August, September and sometimes October, is spent writing twice-daily updates that are emailed to media and posted on the county’s website.
She comes in around 7 a.m. and spends at least two hours culling weather, fire and smoke data from various points, including the network of air quality monitors around the county.
Then she writes.
“Can you smell that?” began one update, “There’s a slight campfire edge to the air.”
“Visibility has dropped and this morning’s sun is a casting a lovely filtered orange glow over the area,” she wrote in another. “The air may be bad, but now the kids can use #nofilter and still get nifty Instagrams. So there’s that.”
Another began, “The combination of active fires, strong inversions and Canadian smoke means we all woke up to varying degrees of misery this morning.”
Coefield said she wants people "to understand what I’m seeing. It’s my flow of thought. I look at things with mostly good humor 'cause it’s the only way to survive this kind of smoke.”
She got into writing while getting her master's degree in zoology wildlife toxicology from Michigan State University. While doing research in the field, Coefield quickly realized there was a need for interpreting jargon and relaying it to a lay person.
Soon, she supplemented her research with another master's degree in environmental journalism and came to Missoula County, ready to share her deep scientific knowledge.
Environmental Health Director Shannon Therriault said Coefield was hired at a time when the health department was trying to specialize by hiring people with deeper knowledge in their specific fields.
With Coefield’s innate knowledge of the science behind her writing, Therriault said, she has room to joke or play with the ideas.
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“It’s because she’s such an expert at what she does,” Therriault said.
The first few fire seasons Coefield worked weren’t the massive county-wide, resource-draining seasons like we’re seeing this year, Therriault said. But more and more people started seeing the air quality updates as the fires, the smoke and the air got worse.
When Coefield started writing more “professional” versions for the county website, Therriault asked her to use the originals instead.
“The fact is, she’s just a great writer,” Therriault said. “Every time I read it, I appreciate it.”
It runs in the family too. Coefield’s father is John Coefield, a longtime meteorologist for the state department of environmental quality who developed the first air quality standards in Montana.
Sometimes she’ll call her father if he’s outside the county monitoring range for a quick update.
“He can just tell me, basically by looking at it because he’s done it so long,” Coefield said.
The worst air-quality year (aside from this one) was 2015, Coefield said, when smoke from Washington and Canadian fires poured into the valley and settled in under Missoula’s ever-present inversions and an unhelpful high-pressure ridge, which deadbolt locks the smoky air in the valley.
She called that ridge the “High-Pressure Ridge of Doom” in her updates and counts it among Missoula air quality’s “greatest hits.”
It’s early yet in the fire season and Coefield thought it was just a matter of time before some Washington fires broke out and sent the real smoke our way.
“I know you’ve all been thinking that it’s not a real smoke party until Washington shows up, and the wait may finally be over,” she wrote in a recent daily update.
And in another: “When our smoke goes up, there’s a good chance the Canadian smoke will come down. Then later this evening, our smoke will also come down and have a nice multinational smoke party in our breathing space.”
But already, Coefield’s feeling the wear of the lengthening fire season.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Coefield said. “That’s the hardest thing to really digest.”
But she keeps writing the updates, keeps harping on the air quality recommendations and keeps trying to come up with jokes.
“In 2015, I was getting nervous cause I was running out of dumb smoke jokes,” she said. “That is a concern, 'cause this fire season’s going to be a long one.”
Missoula County air quality updates can be found here.