AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This year's western wildfire season is stretching into the school year. It's producing so much smoke that kids' sports events are being cancelled, and some schools are closing. It's been so bad in Missoula County, Mont., that one town had its air classified as hazardous for 35 days since August 1. Montana Public Radio's Nora Saks reports on the community's response.
NORA SAKS, BYLINE: At Frenchtown Elementary School 15 miles west of Missoula, recess is in full swing. Kids are dodging balls, swinging jump ropes and playing tag. But it's all happening indoors because it's just too smoky to play outside. Ten-year-old Cole Houlihan was making the most of it.
COLE: I like to go outside, but it's kind of nice to stay inside so you don't get your nose super stuffy like my nose is.
SAKS: When his football team has held practice outdoors, he says it's still fun, but...
COLE: It's just a little harder to breathe.
SAKS: Burning trees release tiny particles and gases which are bad for everyone's respiratory systems, but children are especially vulnerable because their lungs are still developing. Assistant Principal Ashley Parks bases decisions on whether to let kids outside on a state air quality website she watches all day that tracks concentrations of fine particulates.
ASHLEY PARKS: Every hour, we check it. On a day like today, we don't need to check it because we know it's terrible. And we know it's going to be bad all day.
SAKS: But keeping the windows shut and the kids indoors isn't a complete fix. Only a special type of filter can actually purify the air by scrubbing the particulate matter from smoke out of it. Most schools in Missoula County don't have them. Sarah Coefield writes those daily air quality updates. She's a specialist with the Missoula County Health Department. The fact that not all kids have access to clean air distresses her.
SARAH COEFIELD: To be able to put filters in some classrooms makes it feel like we're doing something. I'm not just screaming into the void about, it's bad; it's bad; it's bad. They're actually - you know, we're trying to do something and be more proactive. Intervention is not enough, though.
SAKS: There is no funding source dedicated to creating safe airspaces, so the county has been tapping into a fund set aside for public health emergencies. A local nonprofit partnered with Coefield to get air filters into schools in the worst-hit areas. They want to lay better groundwork for a future in which wildfires and smoke are only likely to get worse, says Coefield.
COEFIELD: My one desperate goal at the end of all of this is to have air quality taken as seriously as water quality. Right now we have air that's been contaminated by a natural event, and it has been far more challenging to get filtered air for everyone.
SAKS: One concerned mom bought filters for her kids' elementary classroom when she learned state budget cuts meant the school couldn't afford it. And then she raised $10,000 in a week to outfit every other classroom and the local middle school.
It's supposed to rain in Montana later this week and may even snow in the mountains, but meteorologists say it won't be enough to end the state's fire season that's now stretching into its third month. For NPR News, I'm Nora Saks in Missoula.
CHANG: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Montana Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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