DEQ issues air quality alert for 12 counties; smoke to worsen Tuesday

By: - July 26, 2021 4:57 pm

Smoke from wildfires burning through bone dry forests and grasslands in the West covered the city of Helena, Montana on July 19, 2021 (Photo by Matt Volz | Kaiser Health News).

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued Monday an air quality alert for 12 counties, and if you’re looking for clean air in the state, you’ll likely have to wait.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the forecast that’s indicating we’re going to get a big breath of fresh air,” said Kevin Stone of the DEQ.

In a joint news release, the DEQ and Department of Public Health and Human Services encouraged people in Beaverhead, Carbon, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Missoula, Park, Pondera, Powder River, Powell, Ravalli, and Sweet Grass counties to protect their lungs because the air is “unhealthy for sensitive groups” or “unhealthy.”

The air monitoring station in Libby was the only one out of 22 in the state showing “good” air on Monday afternoon, according to the DEQ’s website. “Air quality across the state ranges from ‘moderate’ to ‘unhealthy,’ with the worst air quality concentrations occurring south of the I-90 corridor,” the DEQ and DPHHS said in the news release. “Smoke from wildfires is impacting most of the northwestern U.S. due to the number of active fires in the region.”

Provided by the DEQ for the Daily Montanan.

Air quality is only expected to get worse Tuesday, the DEQ said. Smoke is flowing into Montana from western states, and fires in Montana also are making the air dirty. 

At times, it’s possible to pinpoint the source or sources of smoke via satellite imagery, Stone said. However, the smoke was so thick Monday, specific sources of the haze and bad air weren’t clear.

“This is just the whole region blanketed at this time,” he said.

A high pressure ridge is causing Montana to heat up, and it’s also trapping the air, so the smoke likely will hang around for the time being, according to the DEQ. Go to TodaysAir.mt.gov for the most recent information.

The DEQ’s website noted the following cities as having unhealthy air: Frenchtown, Dillon, Bozeman, Broadus and Seeley Lake. The following were unhealthy for sensitive groups: Missoula, Hamilton, Butte, Helena, Great Falls, Lewistown, Havre, Malta, Red Lodge, Billings and Thompson Falls.

When air quality is unhealthy, active children and adults, and people who have a chronic condition, such as asthma or another respiratory disease, or cardiovascular disease, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion, according to the DEQ and DPHHS.

“This summer, DEQ will post smoke forecasts during times when smoke is causing air quality impacts. The forecasts will be posted to social media and on: TodaysAir.mt.gov by clicking on the ‘Wildfire Smoke Outlook’ link,” the news release said.

DEQ and DPHHS Tips

Exposure to wildfire pollutants can irritate lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, including COVID-19. Populations known to be vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure include: children, senior citizens, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease—including asthma and diabetes—and outdoor workers. Other factors that may contribute to increased vulnerability include homelessness and limited access to medical care. Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, you should seek prompt medical attention by calling 911 or calling ahead to the nearest emergency facility.

An N95 respirator offers protection against wildfire smoke particulate matter when worn correctly to achieve a proper fit and seal. However, the use of filtering facepiece respirators can cause breathing issues for some individuals. For this reason, individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease, should consult with their healthcare provider prior to respirator use. Respirators do not come in sizes suitable for children, so they are not effective at reducing wildfire smoke exposure for this population.

When air quality is unhealthy, DPHHS and DEQ encourage Montanans and visitors to consider the following tips to protect their health:

  • Before heading outside for any physical activity, check for air quality updates and pay attention to any hazardous air quality advisories. Air quality information is updated regularly at: TodaysAir.mt.gov
  • When wildfires occur, continue to monitor DEQ’s site for changes in air quality.
  • Pay attention to visibility. How far can you see in the distance? Looking at visibility can help estimate air quality.
  • If the air quality is poor, limit outdoor activities and keep your indoor air clean by keeping all doors and windows shut and setting any air conditioning units to recirculate indoor air.
  • Consider using HEPA air cleaners indoors to reduce overall smoke exposure.
  • Maintain an adequate supply of food and medication (more than five days).
  • If you have a chronic lung or heart condition, check with your health care providers before the fire season about precautions to take during smoke events.
  • Do not perform any activities that will add to indoor pollution.
  • Use the air recirculate feature in vehicles when possible.
  • If traveling, be aware of the air quality in the area and have a back-up plan. 

For information about how to protect your health during wildfire season, go to dphhs.mt.gov/airquality

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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