SEELEY LAKE — A day after the Missoula City-County Health Department strongly recommended that Seeley Lake residents leave because the air quality there is four times worse than levels considered "hazardous,'' many people appear to be staying put.
Business owners and those with jobs in town said Thursday they are concerned about the smoke but leaving is too difficult, even with the Red Cross offer of free shelter.
Seeley Lake Fire Chief Bob Vanden Heuvel said calls for medical assistance have not increased along with the heavy smoke from the Rice Ridge fire.
He said residents with diagnosed lung diseases already may have left the area, citing two people with breathing difficulties who temporarily have relocated to Helena and Great Falls.
"This is obviously taxing our town a little bit," Vanden Heuvel said. But so far, residents have "rolled with the punches very well."
The health department issued the warning to leave town Wednesday after air quality exceeded hazardous levels seven times in under two weeks, said Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist with the department.
On an average day, Coefield said, hourly pollution from tiny particulates measures between five and eight micrograms per cubic meter of air. When that rises to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air in an hour, air quality is deemed hazardous.
In the Seeley Lake area, the hourly average in the morning is 950 micrograms per cubic meter of air. "That's where the four times what we consider hazardous comes from," Coefield said.
According to the EPA website, several scientific studies have shown that exposure to tiny (2.5 micrometers or less) particulates in the air, even in healthy people, can affect the lungs and heart, causing nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, difficulty breathing and decreased lung function.
The warning to stay away from the Seeley Lake area has temporarily slowed the stream of visitors the community gets in the summer, said Susan Baker, owner of the Grizzly Claw Trading Company.
"Tourists don't want to be in the middle of harms way," she said.
Zia Nelson, who works at the espresso bar in the Grizzly Claw Trading Company, is concerned for her young son. She and her husband have talked about father and son leaving town while she stays to work.
"That's what you really think about," Nelson said. "The future of your kid's health."
While the Missoula City-County Health Department does have some policing powers, the Missoula County Sheriff is the official who orders a mandatory evacuation under statute, said Ellen Leahy, health department director.
The health department's recommendation Wednesday was meant to update its previous recommendation that people try to stay inside as much as possible. The levels being measured now, she said, mean that just being inside will no longer protect people from the hazardous air.
Surgical masks also cannot protect people from these very fine particles, Leahy said.
Katrina Carpenter, an employee at the U.S. Postal Service in Seeley Lake, is offered paid leave through her job at the post office. But Carpenter's husband won't get paid if he takes off work. Her kids also have jobs in the area, and it's hard to leave employers without anyone to work, she said.
"It's not realistic to just leave," Carpenter said.
Carpenter's father lives in the area as well and uses an oxygen tank, but is just staying in his house and avoiding going outside, she said.
Carpenter is sending her dogs — Ruckus, Blu and Miley — to her in-laws house in Potomac. And this weekend, Carpenter and her husband plan to take their kids to Coeur d’Alene for a short respite from the smoke.
Beyond that, Carpenter is just avoiding being outside if she can. By the late afternoon, much of the smoke leaves. And Wednesday night Carpenter said she could see the stars in the sky.
But waking up in the morning is difficult, she said. "In the morning, I can't even take a breath," Carpenter said.
Some people are still stopping in Seeley on their way to nearby recreation areas. Jaxon Allen was renting jet skis at Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear on his way to Placid Lake. He and a group of about 40 came up from Lewistown to camp at the lake, despite the smoke warnings. He said a friend had gone ahead to scope out the area before the whole group came up, and the area was clear.
Jim Rogers was one of the few Seeley Lake residents wearing a mask Thursday. He had asthma as a kid and if he doesn't wear it, he can feel his chest tighten and his voice get scratchy, he said.
He and his family had just gotten back from Missoula and were heading to Trout Creek to get out of the smoke. "It wasn't even this bad during the Jocko fires," he said.
But when he heard about the health department's warning, he said it was a little frustrating.
"Where do we all go?" he said. "Are you going to pay for our lodging?"
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, 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.