Knight Center grad shows humor in the face of wildfires

By Kate Habrel

Sarah Coefield.   Photo credit:  Shannon Edney

Sarah Coefield. Photo credit: Shannon Edney

MSU graduate and former Knight Center employee Sarah Coefield was featured recently as “Monday’s Montanan” in the Missoulian.
The reason? In part: dumb smoke jokes.
Coefield is one of two Missoula County air quality specialists. She wears numerous hats for her job – writing policy and rules for air pollution control and air quality updates. It’s those updates that have recently attracted a lot of attention.
Coefield keeps an email list of people who rely on knowing air quality, such as athletic directors and the media. Mostly, the messages are twice-daily reminders of which direction the smoke is coming from and how to stay safe.
But as the years have gone by, Coefield has gotten less and less formal with the recipients.
“I would be there but in a way that’s readable and understandable,” she said. “My flow of consciousness, as well as all of the science and all the information. And I would put some dumb smoke jokes in them.”
For example, in her latest update for the county site, Coefield writes, “The Lolo monitor is apparently not operating all that well today, so my best advice for folks in Lolo is to look at the air. It’s not as snazzy as reading those sweet, sweet data points from a monitor, but when the monitor becomes untrustworthy, it’s acceptable to look outside.”
“From looking at the satellite, the odds are pretty good that several additional areas are going to be on the receiving end of smoke plumes this afternoon,” she writes in a Sept. 11 update. “They will be subject to the ‘plume plop’ – that oh so special period of the afternoon when smoke from far away fires lands on your head… And no, plume plop is not a scientific term.  It is, however, fun to say. You’re welcome.”
This year, Coefield’s new supervisor didn’t want those jokes to stay only in the emails. She wanted them on the county website.
Now the public can enjoy Coefield’s well-written – and scientifically accurate – updates on Missoula County’s air quality during wildfire season.
“It has evolved into a very strange situation where apparently I now have fans,” Coefield said. “People that I don’t know have tried to friend me on Facebook. It’s become very strange.”
Wildfire season lasts from mid-summer through early fall. This year, air quality has been particularly bad. Some places in Missoula County have seen clear days only in the single digits.
This means Coefield’s job keeps her plenty busy. Each update takes about two and a half hours to put together. The rest of the day is taken up with answering phone calls from the media and people concerned about what they can do to stay safe.
In the middle of such a serious health hazard, sometimes humor is the best medicine.
“If your job is to give people bad news, if you can put in dumb jokes, they’re more able to take it,” Coefield said. “That makes it more bearable. Because that’s my job: giving people bad news. They send me appreciative emails for all the bad news I’m sending them because at least it’s enjoyable to read.”
You can check out Coefield’s air quality updates here.

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