Missoula Up In Smoke

When researching a place to live, a big part of gaging if that certain location is a good fit is to look at the air quality that impacts it. Some people can handle the smog filled atmosphere of a metropolis such as Los Angeles, others cannot. Usually, looking at the average air indexes of cities can give you a good idea on if the place fits your personal needs or not. However, such is life, certain uncontrollable events can occur that will alter the normal meteorological/climate patterns of an area and disrupt what people are normally used to. When Mt. Saint Helens erupted, ash descended on cities on the total opposite side of Washington State, thus polluting the air and sending the normal pleasant days of May for a complete twist. When 9/11 occurred, the New York City air became filled with nasty toxins that have had devastating effects on thousands of people. Closer to my home, we are currently undergoing a pretty significant challenge to our usually healthy air.

Over the past few weeks, Missoula has turned from a gorgeous, colorful slice of paradise to a dark, smoke filled bowl. With wildfires raging in the Bitterroot area of western Montana and in the Idaho Panhandle, The Garden City has been the unlucky recipient of more smoke than any compulsive liar could ever manage to blow.

In normal times, the air in Missoula could rightfully be caught in bottles and sold for an expensive price to anyone in need of a “breath of fresh air.” The Missoula air is usually golden, a sweet reminder of why Montana is The Last Best Place and a selling point for all the California people who decide to pack up their belongings and head north to take up residence in our beautiful state. Whenever I would return to Missoula from travel to a bigger city, the major factor that would help me get over my post-vacation depression would be to step outside of the town’s mini airport and breathe in the clean, therapeutic Montana air. On my many return trips from Las Vegas, filling my lungs with the Zoo Town vapor immediately refreshed my body from several days of sun, smoke, pollutants, and other unsavory things. It was an immediate cure. Good thing I don’t have any Vegas trips planned for the next couple of weeks, I would hate to have that experience totally flipped around.

On the flight back home from Tennessee last week, the descent into Missoula was something else. Instead of mountains, valleys, and the beautiful colors that define a western Montana autumn, all I could see out of my window seat was grayish-brown smoke. Nothing became visible until about a minute before we landed. As we descended I looked at Jimmy and told him that I couldn’t believe people were living in this. After five days spent in the sticky, humid air of the south, I was ready for some reprieve. However, what I got when I stepped outside was 5X worse than what I had been exposed to over the better half of the past week. I walked through what seemed like plumes of smoke to my car as my nose was greeted with the somewhat welcoming smell of a campfire…only no hot dogs or marshmallows were present. This was not right.

The smoke has only gotten worse in Missoula. This past Friday, the school district canceled all of its after school football games. Even night competitions were called off. To get an idea of how bad it is, the homecoming football game for one of the local high schools here had to be moved to Ronan, a very small town sixty miles north of Missoula. We went on with our football game here at The University of Montana but from my vantage point in the press box, it was a pretty weird site to see Washington-Grizzly Stadium filled with a brown, hazy smoke for the whole game. People were wearing masks in the stands.

I feel for the people who have a low bodily tolerance for the smoke. Surely for them it has to be hell living in Missoula right now. As someone who can handle even the dirtiest of air, it is even tough for me to stomach this environment. It is a challenge to find the silver lining in something like this but if you look closely enough, you can always find a couple things. First, the sunsets have been pretty cool. The smoke has made the sun look bright red as it sets over the mountains. Secondly, it just really makes me appreciate even more the rich, healthy air we get majority of the time.

With the fires still raging, Missoula is likely to be under smoke for quite a while. Our saving grace? WIND! Right now, we need strong winds from the west to blow this smoke out of our valleys. Until then, it might be better for the health conscious and nature loving people of Missoula to spend more time inside. Eventually this will pass and we will have our clean air back. I know I won’t take it for granted again. Don’t Blink.