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Western fires affecting air quality in Montana

Posted at 7:55 PM, Aug 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-03 21:55:58-04

Smoke continues streaming into Montana from wildfires burning in the western United States, causing hazy skies and increased health risks.

As of Friday evening, there are no known large fires in or around Great Falls, but many people have noticed the hazy skies and smoky smell.

The air quality in and around Great Falls as of 6 p.m. on Friday, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), is rated "yellow," which means "moderate." "Moderate" (yellow) means that there is the possibility of aggravation of heart or lung disease for people with cardiopulmonary disease, and the elderly.

The DEQ provides daily updates about wildfire smoke and air quality. While decreasing air quality often leads to hazy conditions, it can also present health risks.

The DEQ rates air quality based on the amount of particulate matter (PM) in the air, which is often caused by smoke from wildfires. In addition to being emitted from wildfires, PM can also come directly from other sources, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, and smokestacks. The EPA says that PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.

The air quality ratings in Montana are assigned a color code. The color green, for example, means that there are no negative health effects, and no precautions are necessary for outdoor activity. 

Here are the other ratings, listed in order of increasing danger or health risks: 

  • Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (orange): Increasing likelihood of respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals, aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should limit prolonged exertion.
  • Unhealthy (red): Increased aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; increased respiratory effects in the general population. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid prolonged exertion; everyone else should limit prolonged exertion.
  • Very Unhealthy (Purple): Significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant risk of respiratory effects in the general population. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid any outdoor activity; everyone else should avoid prolonged exertion.
  • Hazardous (maroon): Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in the general population. Everyone should avoid any outdoor exertion; people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should remain indoors.

The DEQ publishes a daily Wildfire Smoke Update; here is the update for Friday, August 3rd:

Air quality has improved in many areas since yesterday, although we are still dealing with MODERATE impacts in many locations. The southern and eastern parts of the state are continuing to deal with smoke being transported up from California and Oregon. As of 10am Friday, air quality was MODERATE in Columbia Falls, Frenchtown, Seeley Lake, Dillon, Helena, West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Lewistown, Malta, Sidney, Billings, Broadus, and Birney. Air quality was GOOD in Libby, Thompson Falls, Missoula, Hamilton, Butte, and Great Falls. 

There are a few new fires to report today after the red flag warnings yesterday. In Montana, we have the Shorey fire northwest of Billings at 300 acres and 0% contained with moderate fire behavior. There is also the Garden Creek fire near Ronan, at 184 acres and 0% contained with active fire behavior. Up in northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle we continue to have a cluster of fires, including the Davis fire (307 acres), andthe Tenmile fire (100 acres) in Montana, and the Smith Creek fire (370 acres) and Cougar fire (300 acres) in Idaho. 

In Washington and Oregon, fire activity continues to increase. In Oregon, new fires being reported today include the South Valley Road fire near the Dalles, at 20,000 acres, the Angel Springs fire, at 600 acres, and the Saddle Mountain fire, at 1,000 acres. In Washington, the Crescent Mountain fire, at 5,000 acres, and the Cougar Creek fire, at 3,614 acres, as well as a fire just over the border in British Columbia, are continuing to generate a lot of smoke that is starting to impact far northwest Montana. 

We should see the smoke over southern and eastern Montana slowly clear out as the disturbance moves down from Canada today. Transport winds will shift to the west and northwest. Unfortunately, that means we will see smoke from the fire activity in Washington, British Columbia, and northwest Montana move further into the state. In southwest Montana, there should be a break in between smoke sources this afternoon and most of Saturday. For parts of eastern Montana, smoke from California, Oregon, and the new fire activity in central Montana may keep skies hazy and air quality MODERATE through Saturday. Unfortunately, by the time it blows out on Saturday, new smoke from the northwest may quickly move in behind it. 

Another ridge of high pressure is expected to build back into the state next week, bringing Montana back downwind of the fire activity in California, Oregon, and southern Idaho. Expect the haze and air quality impacts ranging from MODERATE to UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS to return.

Bottom line: Southwest Montana may get a brief break, but smoke impacts will continue for the rest of the state for the foreseeable future.

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