During fire season, air quality can fluctuate wildly in western Montana, but it’s Sarah Coefield’s job as an air quality specialist for Missoula County to let the public know just how bad a situation is. The tool used to tell the public about the air is called the Air Quality Index, which has six categories ranging from Good to Hazardous. Behind that label is a more precise measurement, Coefield explains.

"We measure particulate matter as micrograms per cubic meter as averaged over an hour," Coefield siad. "That sounds really technical, but it's basically just weighing the amount of smoke in the air. We consider air quality to be hazardous to human health at 250 micgrograms per cubic meter."

The air in some portions of Missoula County is so bad, it is unlike anything the state has ever measured. Though still considered hazardous, the measurements are miles beyond the danger limit.

"Seeley Lake has been ranging from 300 to almost 600 micrograms per cubic meter all morning, I mean it starts building up after midnight. This is far beyond where we would tell people, 'this is hazardous, stop breathing it you need to cut down your exposure to it.' and they've had so many nights... they've been up close to 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter multiple times."

The dangers of smoke inhalation are, of course, health related and according to Coefield, the long term effects of these particulates on our blood stream, our lungs and our brains, are downright scary. She says the number of people in Seeley Lake seeking medical help for smoke related issues has skyrocketed since the Rice Ridge Fire began.