LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This past wildfire season, there were unprecedented amounts of wildfire smoke in communities across western Montana. Instead of just issuing warnings, public health agencies tried something new - actually making the air cleaner in the homes of vulnerable residents. Nora Saks from Montana Public Radio reports.
NORA SAKS, BYLINE: Wildfire smoke is bad for everybody but especially older folks and those with chronic heart and lung diseases. The Dunagans, who live in Seeley Lake, Mont., check both boxes.
JOY DUNAGAN: We put towels around the doors, the windows, everything. Grime from the smoke came in through the whole house.
SAKS: Joy and her husband Don are 69 years old and are on oxygen. She's a stroke survivor. He recently developed asbestosis after almost 40 years working in an aluminum factory.
DON DUNAGAN: I've got less than 50 percent breathing capacity right now.
SAKS: Then a wildfire blew up half a mile from their cozy log home.
D. DUNAGAN: That smoke on top of it - it was killing me.
SAKS: But with no family in state and limited mobility, they had to stay in their house all summer. An appliance called a HEPA air filter made that possible. It removes the fine particulates in woodsmoke that are so hazardous. It resembles a space heater. Amy Cilimburg is busy installing a new one in a corner of their living room.
AMY CILIMBURG: There's a prefilter - takes out the large stuff. And then that's the HEPA filter.
SAKS: She's the director of a nonprofit called Climate Smart Missoula. When wildfire smoke swamped Seeley Lake, Missoula County's health department worked with Climate Smart to distribute HEPA filters to at-risk residents. Don says he slept next to it in his recliner every single night.
D. DUNAGAN: I believe that that machine saved my life. I really do.
SAKS: Kids are also extra vulnerable to the pollutants in smoke. So when the wildfires dragged on into September, Missoula County and Climate Smart scrambled to put filters in the worst-hit schools. The county health department's Ellen Leahy says that strategy of finding a solution and taking action was a big shift.
ELLEN LEAHY: Messaging that the air isn't good isn't enough. There has to be a more concerted effort to provide clean indoor air. We have to plan to be able to do that and deploy those systems much more quickly.
SAKS: The challenge is figuring out who pays for it. Portable HEPA air filters that can clean a big room cost under $200 each. It costs about $30,000 to put them in just three schools last fire season. And the money the county pitched in to buy filters last minute came from emergency funds, which quickly dried up. Leahy says they tried their best to respond to the need.
LEAHY: But it was very, I would say, makeshift.
SAKS: The county health department wasn't equipped to launch a large-scale emergency response because they're set up to regulate easily controlled, manmade sources of air pollution, like factories or woodstoves. But scientists predict wildfires are only going to get worse. So public health departments see a need for a more proactive approach. That's going to require some creativity, Leahy says, because right now...
LEAHY: There's not a new source of funding that we're aware - there's not a pathway for us to do that.
SAKS: The state also lacks resources for wildfire smoke, says Jim Murphy with Montana's health department. And given Montana's budget shortfall...
JIM MURPHY: I don't anticipate that there's going to be a lot of new monies coming or anything like that. I think it's maybe making the best of what we already have.
SAKS: For now, the state will keep supporting local health agencies. And the county health department will continue to work with Climate Smart. They're also encouraging larger public institutions, like school districts, to improve their air filtration systems and pay for them from their own budgets. For NPR News, I'm Nora Saks in Missoula, Mont.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Montana Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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