Western Residents Fear Lung Damage

Tuesday, August 29th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Katie Gray-Murphy spent the last weekend of her summer vacation shuttered in her house, the windows closed against a gray shroud of wildfire smoke.

``If there was no fires or smoke going on, I could go out and do whatever I wanted,'' said the 15-year-old, who has lived with asthma most of her life.

Most of the Northern Rockies are cloaked in a stinky, dingy cloud of wood smoke from wildfires that have burned millions of acres this summer. In Helena, the shroud is often so dense Katie must check the local air quality hot line before going for a walk.

``I read, watch TV or do chores,'' she said. ``It gets really boring, just doing the same thing over and over.''

For others, the smoke is more than boring — it's a matter of life and death. Each new day is a danger to those with existing respiratory or cardiac problems.

``There are people on the ragged edge of dying anyway, and this kind of air could be the triggering cause,'' said John Coefield, a meteorologist with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The fires have spawned a massive plume of smoke that extends the 500-mile breadth of Montana, east into the Dakotas and beyond. In Des Moines, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources warned people with respiratory problems to stay indoors Monday.

``The longer it lasts, the more people are going to be affected,'' said Shannon Therriault, air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department.

For Montana, the Big Sky is almost permanently gray over nearly all the state's 145,000 square miles. A blend of wind and temperatures can change the haze into air pungent with the smell of burning wood and laced with ash that leaves a dusting on cars parked overnight.

Some cities and towns in the Bitterroot Valley have had air considered so hazardous that everyone is urged to avoid any strenuous activities outdoors. The elderly, children and those with breathing or heart problems are told to stay home.

State officials said pharmacies are reporting runs on inhalers, used by asthmatics and others with respiratory problems. Some stores are selling two or three times what they normally do this time of year.

The data backs up the fear: While a typical summer day would measure a pollution level of 30 micrograms or less per cubic meter of air, Missoula has reached 500 micrograms during the worst smokestorms.

Darby, a small town near the heart of the Bitterroot's worst fires, has measured pollution at 750 micrograms — 25 times more polluted than normal for August.

Lungs compensate for smoke by constricting, reducing air flow and causing blood pressure to rise — putting an added strain on the heart, said Dr. Michael Spence, the state's chief medical officer.

``When you're subjected to a lot of smoke for long periods of time, you can have headaches, nausea, dizziness,'' said Judy Griffin, public health nursing director in Ravalli County, one of the hardest hit areas of the state.

Griffin fears that although public health officials have not seen a large number of patients in trouble due to the smoke, the long-term damage won't be known for some time.

``Down the road, I wouldn't be surprised to see people — even with healthy lungs — to have problem with coughing and mucous,'' she said.

Dr. Paul Loehnen, a pulmonary disease specialist in Missoula, said people should use common sense in deciding when to go outdoors. ``Be prudent,'' he said. ``Even if you're healthy, you shouldn't be exercising in air like this.''

Loehnen expects no long-term adverse effects on residents' health due to the smoke because lungs have the ability to recover once clean air is breathed again — but that may not be possible anytime soon.

With some fires expected to burn until the winter snows arrive, smoke could be around for a long time to come, said Dan Powers, environmental health director for the Butte-Silver Bow County Health Department.

``Until Mother Nature comes around and provides us with some relief,'' he said, ``we're going to be stuck in this pattern for several more weeks, if not into October.''


On the Net:

Montana Fire Recovery Information: http://newslinks.state.mt.us/recovery.shtml

Montana air quality updates: http://www.deq.state.mt.us/FireUpdates/Index.htm

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

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