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Missoula fire smoke is bad, but it's been much, much worse

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Posted at 4:56 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 19:14:13-04

MISSOULA — There may be some temporary relief from our fire smoke, but the long-range outlook is for more of the same. Yet even as bad as it's been, conditions are nowhere close to our worst fire season.

"Mind you, this isn't going to put the fires out or anything. But with the wind and everything we should get some periods of clean air. And I hope that's not just wishful thinking."

Ben Schmidt with the Missoula City-County Health Department says with dozens of fires burning, the smoke is coming from everywhere.

"No matter what direction the wind is coming from there are fires. There's going to be smoke in the air unless we get something directly from the Northwest, which is a maybe, but it's very uncommon. We're probably going to get smoke impacts for quite a while." - Ben Schmidt

Sadly, smoke is a part of life in Western Montana. What's remarkable in '21 is how soon it became a problem.

"So the really unique feature about this year is the fact that it got going so early this season. I mean usually, we'd hope to not see wildfire smoke season until now, the end of July," Schmidt noted.

Yet even as irritating as this summer's smoke has been, with several alerts being issued, it's nothing compared to 2017. That summer the entire Missoula area was choked with smoke from surrounding fires.

But it was especially bad in Seeley Lake where the particulate measurement soared to over 1000 micrograms in a cubic meter of air, actually beyond what the equipment could handle.

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Smoke levels in Seeley Lake in 2017 were among the highest ever recorded in the U.S.

By comparison, this summer even our worst days have been between 30 and 50 micrograms per cubic meter, just above the national standard of 35 in 24-hours.

That's because of the Rice Ridge Fire, which burned more than 100,000 acres.

"That's a little bit comparing apples to oranges," Schmidt said. "Seely Lake was right on the edge of that fire. So it was just outside of town. So the levels we were seeing of smoke was intense, compared to anything we have seen in Missoula County yet this year."

Since we all have masks kicking about, you might be tempted to try it against smoke. Don't bother. Those cloth and paper masks you have been using are to contain water droplets. They can't block smoke. And Schmidt says even an N-95 mask doesn't help unless it fits perfectly.

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Images comparing smoke in MIssoula in 2017 (right) and in 2021 (left)

"And that may do absolutely nothing to stop you from breathing smoke. That's where if you're going to worry about smoke an N-95 mask is really the minimum that you would want to find. And again, if it doesn't fit quite right, or there's gaps it doesn't give you the protection you would think it did."

And with nothing but fire in our future, Schmidt says the best advice is still to limit outdoor activity, and create a "clean space" indoors where you can breathe better, guarding against the cumulative impact.

"What doesn't bug you for the first week or two, may start to have an impact on your health if this goes on for two months, three months, etcetera. Right now we may see a few good days of air quality in the near future. But I do not think fire smoke season is going away anytime soon."

Along with the Missoula County alerts, the Montana DEQ website continues to be a good resource if you live elsewhere. Or, try downloading the EPA's "Smoke Sense" app, which allows you to see real time air quality data and learn more about keeping yourself safe."