Smoke from wildfires had been choking the valleys in Western Montana for nearly six weeks. The air quality was so unhealthy and dangerous that the health department was telling people to stay inside and avoid going out unless they had to. It was also unseasonably warm, near 90 degrees. To make matters worse, for the first time wildfire season overlapped with the start of the school year.
When I dropped my children off on the first day of school, I discovered that the hallways were filled with wildfire smoke. I went to talk with the principal, and he said the school had no choice. The local schools lack air conditioning, and they had to cool down the building with fans and by opening the windows. Otherwise, it would be much too hot for students to attend class, especially on the second floor. But in so doing, the inside of the school was getting flooded with smoke from the wildfires.
I knew I had to do something. The students and teachers couldn’t afford to wait until the smoke cleared or wildfire season ended. With the principal’s permission, I purchased air purifiers for my children’s classrooms but realized that wasn’t enough. Every classroom needed an air filtration system. Unfortunately, severe state legislative budget cuts meant that there were no funds available to purchase more. I manage a nonprofit organization, Bear Trust International, and decided to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign to help.
I reached out to the American Lung Association chapter in Montana and several other health-related organizations to identify the best products to help filter the air. In an amazing outpouring of support and concern for our children and teachers, the “Clean Air for Classrooms Campaign” was fully funded in just five days. We raised almost $10,000, with all the money going to purchase 76 air purifiers, two for each classroom, as well as filters for other areas in the school where the need was greatest. Donations came in from all over the county, as far as away as Texas and North Carolina. We are so grateful for everyone’s support in allowing our students and faculty to breathe easier.
As wildfire season grows worse each year due to climate change, what happens when air purifiers aren’t enough? Children are extremely vulnerable to air pollution because their lungs are still developing. Growing research shows that breathing unhealthy levels of particulate matter from wildfire smoke and other pollutants may contribute to otherwise healthy children developing asthma and other chronic lung diseases. For children who do have asthma, wildfire smoke can be deadly. As concerned parents, we must tell the EPA to protect the Clean Power Plan and our children’s right to breathe fresh air.
First published: August 9, 2018