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Wildfire smoke is affecting air quality in and around Great Falls

Posted at 8:35 AM, Aug 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-14 15:42:57-04

Air quality in and around Great Falls and several other areas of Montana are taking a hit from wildfire smoke.

At least three new fires were reported in central Montana following storms on Saturday afternoon. Cascade Volunteer Fire Chief Eric Tilleman confirmed that a fire has started in the Big Belt Mountains. The fire could possibly be in the Beartooth Game Range. He added that forest officials will investigate on Sunday to try and find where exactly the fire is burning.

A Bureau of Land Management ranger said a fire in the north valley hills by Helena is burning in timber on private land. The fire is about a mile from the nearest residence.There is no estimate on the fire’s size at this time. Several engines and water tenders and a helicopter are working on the fire.

The Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest reported another fire that could be as large as five acres southeast of Lincoln. There are also other smoke reports in the Lincoln area. Forest officials stated that firefighters are hiking into the fire and the area is receiving wetting rain.

There are no structures threatened or evacuations ordered.

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

The air quality in and around Great Falls as of 10 a.m. on Sunday, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), is rated "orange," which means "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups." That classification means that there is an 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.

Other areas rated "orange" on Sunday include Lewistown and West Yellowstone.

Here are the 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.

On Saturday, the DEQ posted the following message:

The good news
We will finally see relief from the high temperatures and widespread haze later today. A cold front will move through the area, bringing strong winds and pushing the smoke out of the region from west to east. Expect conditions to improve starting around noon today in western Montana. As smoke moves through the state, conditions may briefly deteriorate in eastern Montana as smoke sweeps through the area. By Sunday morning, expect generally GOOD to MODERATE air quality in most locations. 

The bad news
With the gusty winds and dry thunderstorms moving through today, red flag warnings have been issued across Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Existing fires are expected to be very active today, sending dense plumes out to the east. The large fires burning in central Washington will likely cause the biggest impact to Montana. Northwest Montana will likely see smoke move in from Washington later this evening. The increasing winds will also increase fire activity in northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle, further adding to the smoke that area will deal with. Northwest Montana can expect smoke impacts ranging from MODERATE to UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS, with periods of improvement later this afternoon. Tomorrow morning, air quality in some valleys of northwest Montana may reach UNHEALTHY levels as smoke settles in overnight. 

Extended Forecast
After the passage of the front, winds aloft will generally be from the west for most of next week. This will keep NW Montana downwind of the significant fire activity in Washington and British Columbia, in addition to the smoke being produced on fires in close proximity to the area. Expect continued air quality impacts ranging from MODERATEto UNHEALTHYin the NW part of the state. Elsewhere, more air movement will mean smoke will not build up like it did this past week. Smoke will continue to be transported in from regional fires, but impacts will likely be more episodic, with periods of improvement throughout the week.