Breathe Easy

BCBSMT Springs into Action to Alleviate Wildfire Smoke in Schools

Burning more than 1 million acres and blanketing the state with smoke for months on end, the 2017 wildfire season wreaked havoc on Montana. In July alone, the state saw more acreage burned than in previous years’ entire seasons. Living and working under a thick veil of smoke for months took a toll on communities across the Big Sky State, which more resembled the Big Smoke State than it did the grandiose vistas for which we’re known.

Wildfires may burn, but in Montana, life goes on. September rolled around and school began again. In some communities, educators and students could see fires burning from their classroom windows. Schools smelled and tasted of charred forests.

Health officials often classified the air quality as “hazardous or harmful.” Safe breathing spaces, especially for children, were at a premium.

Wanting to help, and knowing the health risks associated with ongoing exposure to smoke, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT) sprang to action.

We care deeply about the health and well-being of our fellow Montanans, and we embrace a culture of giving back to the communities we serve, especially in times of crisis.

Our community outreach team quickly reached out to partners at the American Lung Association (ALA) of Montana and decided to assist the most vulnerable populations under the most duress by providing air purifiers to schools in Florence, Plains, Thompson Falls, Trout Creek, Noxon, Troy, Libby, Eureka, West Glacier, Arlee and Lincoln – towns living in a quixotic, almost frozen existence where no one could hide from a 24 hour-a-day assault on their health and senses.

The relief efforts included a three-day journey in the Care Van® – a vehicle equipped to serve as a mobile immunization unit – through 11 communities, totaling more than 900 miles. All told, BCBSMT and the ALA delivered 160 air purifiers.

“We care deeply about the health and well-being of our fellow Montanans, and we embrace a culture of giving back to the communities we serve, especially in times of crisis,” said Jesse Zentz, community relations manager at BCBSMT.

According to the ALA, children face special risks from air pollution because they are active and their lungs are still growing. The lungs and alveoli – tiny air sacs where the transfer of oxygen to the blood takes place – aren’t fully grown until children become adults. On top of that, the body’s natural defenses that help fight off infections are still developing in young bodies.

And children generally have more respiratory infections than adults, increasing susceptibility to air pollution.

“It felt great to pull up to schools in this mobile doctor’s office and help kids make the connection between their environment and their health,” said Marcy Ballman, Montana health services manager for the ALA in Montana. “I am so grateful for the Care Van program and their flexibility in providing preventive care across Montana.”

The advanced HEPA air purifiers improved the air quality and outcomes for children so they could focus on their school work and not worry about the air they breathe. The response on the ground was overwhelming.

“We put them out into all of the classrooms, and every teacher said that they could feel a benefit from them,” said Carla Anderson, Superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools. “The air was cleaner and I think the kids liked the fact that something was being done to help them.”

While traveling from school to school to deliver HEPA filters, the BCBSMT team simultaneously reached out to the American Red Cross of Montana to see what areas needed their help. Again, through the disaster relief fund, BCBSMT was able to provide much-needed support to the folks helping families on the ground by donating $15,000 to the Red Cross.

Sixteen primary homes were lost in the fires, and more than 1.2 million acres burned. The American Red Cross of Montana responded to the emergency by opening a record 18 shelters for families forced from their homes because of evacuations, including facilities in Eureka, Florence, Hays, Helena, Jordan, Libby, Missoula, Plains, Potomac, Roundup, Superior and Wolf Creek. Those shelters provided families with a free place to stay, meals, water, snacks and information about disaster-related resources in their communities. The Red Cross served nearly 2,000 meals and snacks to Montana families during evacuations.

“We can’t thank Red Cross of Montana enough for all of the amazing work they’ve done serving those directly impacted by the wildfires in a time of need, and in many cases, desperation,” said Jesse Zentz, manager of community relations at BCBSMT. “The work Red Cross of Montana does supporting our friends and neighbors is nothing short of heroic, and we’re proud to support their efforts.”

“This generous gift from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana will help us replenish some of the supplies we used during this historic wildfire season and it helps us prepare for the next wildfire,” said Diane Wright, executive director of the Montana Red Cross. “This has really helped us put our shelters together and get the relief supplies where they’re needed most.”