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Montana health leaders warn about smoke exposure as wildfires burn to the north

Posted at 11:04 AM, Jun 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-03 13:17:54-04

HELENA – People across large areas of Montana woke up to smoke-filled skies last week as smoke from large fires in Canada blew into the state.

“For this season, this is the first time we’ve seen wildfire smoke move into the state,” said Kristen Martin, an air quality meteorologist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

In places like Helena, Havre and Cut Bank, the air quality peaked in the Unhealthy range.

“We’re under a fairly stable air pattern right now that’s causing that smoke to settle into the valleys a bit, so that’s why Helena, I think, is seeing a bit worse than areas like Great Falls,” Martin said.

Now, state health leaders are reminding the public about the possible effects the particulate matter in smoke can have.

“Wildfire smoke can act as an irritant, so even when exposed for a short period of time, people can experience a cough, itchy or irritated eyes, sore throat, shortness of breath – and even at higher levels of smoke concentration, heart problems can arise,” said BJ Biskupiak, asthma control program manager for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Even if the air quality isn’t officially unhealthy, leaders recommend limiting vigorous outdoor activity when there’s smoke in the air. It’s especially important for sensitive groups, like children, older people, pregnant or nursing women and people who have heart or lung conditions.

“We recommend that people stay indoors with their windows and doors closed,” Biskupiak said. “If they do have an air conditioner, we’d recommend that you set it to recirculate.”

“You’ll also want to focus on reducing indoor exposures – those are things like tobacco smoke in the home, vacuuming that might kick up dust, also considering reducing the use of gas, wood-burning or propane stoves or furnaces.”

If you have to be outside in an area with heavy smoke, Biskupiak said you can use an N95 mask to limit what you breathe in. However, you should check with a doctor to make sure it is fitted correctly and that you are healthy enough to wear it safely.

Montana DEQ operates a website called “Today’s Air”, featuring hourly air quality updates from 19 monitoring stations around Montana.

For people not living near one of those monitors, the website also includes information on how to estimate air quality using visibility. In general, if you can see at least five miles, the air quality is acceptable. If you cannot see that far, conditions are likely unhealthy.

Martin said, in this current weather pattern, air quality may tend to improve in the afternoon, as warmer weather helps lift smoke away from the ground.

But when fires are burning in Montana, the conditions could get worse later in the day, as fire activity increases in the afternoon.

“We do recommend that you check air quality before embarking on outdoor activities, just to make sure it’s not a time where air quality is spiking,” Martin said.

“Use your best judgment. If it smells really smoky, if it looks really hazy outside, then even if the website hasn’t updated yet for the new hour but smoke has rolled in, consider air quality to be degrading.”

-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News