Reporter's Notebook

Running Up for Air

As wildfires grow in intensity, the air quality of mountain-valley communities in western Montana has continued to diminish

By Tristan Scott

Greetings from Montana! I’ve been opening my written correspondence with that salutation for more than 18 years now, beginning in the summer of 2003, when Dad and I convoyed my Subaru west from Minnesota to Montana in what proved for me (and the Subaru) to be a nonreciprocal transaction, but which my 21-year-old self arranged on the more traditional terms of matriculation. 

We jammed that station wagon roof-to-chassis with tote bins and Leinenkugel’s boxes, each one brimming with the books and cassette tapes and reckless miscellany I’d deemed essential for a cross-country decampment. The awkward stacks struck haphazard poses over my shoulder as I embraced a “reasonable and prudent” speed limit, eager to arrive in my adoptive state. Eighteen hours after leaving the familiarity of my childhood home, we landed outside my new digs near the University of Montana campus, where I’d been accepted to the School of Journalism as a transfer student. 

Without bothering to unpack the station wagon, we aimed Dad’s rig north toward Glacier National Park, where we were scheduled to embark on a six-day backpacking trip from Goat Haunt to the Belly River.

Unbeknownst to us, we were about to hike into the worst wildfire season in the park’s history.

By late July of that summer, the National Park Service had responded to 26 wildfires that scorched roughly 13% of the park’s 1 million acres. The Robert Fire alone burned 57,570 acres and forced multiple evacuations of the Lake McDonald Valley and West Glacier, where Dad and I holed up in a motel room for two days waiting for an evacuation order to lift so we could begin our adventure. Through a combination of dumb luck and dogged persistence, we managed to compress our itinerary and complete our traverse of Glacier’s northern tier, marveling at the unrelenting landscape and ending each exhausting day beneath a smoke-tinged sunset. By September, the fires had cost the Park Service more than $68 million while altering the landscape for generations.

Upon returning to Missoula, which was hemmed in by a half-dozen wildfire complexes at least as destructive as those in Glacier, I was struck by the density with which the smoke settled in the five glacier-carved valleys that intersect there. During my daily runs along the Kim Williams Trail and up the vaunted switchbacks of Mount Sentinel’s “M” trail, I noticed that dog-walkers, cyclists and other runners often wore particulate masks when the smoke was especially thick.

As wildfires grow in intensity, the air quality of mountain-valley communities in western Montana has continued to diminish. In recent years, the American Lung Association has ranked Missoula and the surrounding area among the most polluted in the country for short-term seasonal particle pollution. The Flathead isn’t far behind.

In an effort to help change the script, I recently enlisted in Running Up for Air – Mt. Sentinel, a fundraising endurance event that entails running up and down the iconic Missoula landmark between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Feb. 12. It’s a four-mile loop that gains nearly 2,000 feet of elevation and I will run it as many times as I can manage in the allotted 12-hour period. Why would I want to do this? There’s a pressing need to address the poor air quality in western Montana, and I plan on joining other runners to make a statement, while also making a financial contribution to the nonprofit organization Climate Smart Missoula by accepting pledges.

I’d like to continue beaming out cheery salutations in my missives from Montana for years to come. But more importantly, I’d like to continue breathing our clean mountain air.

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