Missoula City-County Health Department air quality specialist Sarah Coefield

MISSOULA – As Montanans dealt with poor – and sometimes dangerous – air quality during the summer due to wildfire smoke, there were not a lot of positive things to say.

Despite the depressing outlook, a Missoula City-County Health Department air quality specialist took it upon herself to find humor in the smoky situation.

Sarah Coefield even wrote an article for the Washington Post as word of the terrible conditions, and her surprising humor, spread.

Coefield said she and her colleagues tried to make the best of being the bearers of bad news with regular postings to their Facebook page:

  • We’re still seeing some smoke this afternoon. The fires haven’t really heard that their end is nigh, or maybe they have, and that’s why there are so many plumes stretching across western Montana this evening. 
  • Smoke here, smoke there, smoke everywhere! It was a rough day, but we have seen some improvements this afternoon. The air is still bad, of course. But it’s a lesser version of bad. Bad-lite, maybe.
  • You guys, the Atlantic doesn’t hold the only spinning air of doom. We have our very own smoke spiral sitting over Idaho, and it’s creating (and will continue to create) horrible air quality throughout the region. 
  • We have some blue skies in Missoula, but that’s because we’re in a happy little bubble. There is so much smoke out there, you guys. The fires have been incredibly active.
  • Did you remember there are trees on the mountains? Not only are there trees on the mountains, now you can even see them! This morning we’re continuing to benefit from the cold front that delivered some moisture and strong breezes to the region yesterday.
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“If I wasn’t able to put in the more light-hearted moments, that would make it even harder for me,” she said. “It is impossible for me to not kind of have these undercurrents of wry statements going through my brain, and if I can put them out there and other people can enjoy them, that is all the better.”

The health department’s twice-daily updates sent out across the region became known for making people laugh.

Smoke from multiple nearby states and Canada also contributed to the poor air quality.

At one point, she and her colleagues sang Ride of the Valkyries while watching a satellite image of a massive smoke plume moving in towards western Montana.

But Coefield’s humor is bittersweet: “Some folks were hit really, really hard and got really really sick.”

Many people and school districts were not prepared for this summer.

Coefield worked with other agencies and nonprofits to pull together enough air filters for every classroom, and anyone else who needed them. Sometimes they had to say no to smoke-sickened people.

Coefield and other researchers are now trying to figure out what some of the long-term effects of this summer’s wildfire smoke season might be.

This summer was no laughing matter, but the air quality team hoped the light touch was appreciated.

“Be compassionate toward your neighbors, we are all in it together, and it is going to happen again, so take care of each other, and try to protect yourself and get a filter for next year,” she said.

MTN’s Augusta McDonnell

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