Residents Urged to Gauge Air Quality Before Heading Outdoors

Smoky conditions can lead to respiratory issues, health officials say

By Molly Priddy
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

As the hot, dry weather persists in Northwest Montana and dozens of wildfires continue to burn, public health officials are warning Flathead residents and visitors to keep an eye on the smoky haze in the air as it can cause health problems.

Fires produce smoke, and with so many acres burning, the smoke blankets the valley, filling the air with particulates. These particulates cause a diffusion of light, Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell said, making it difficult to see distances just a few miles away.

“It’s a very small particulate that is very (breathable),” Russell said. “It gets deep into your lungs and could cause problems.”

And while the state Department of Environmental Quality has hourly updates on air quality, the smoke changes as the wind blows, and information posted a couple hours ago might not apply to current situations.

Russell said people can use the DEQ air quality tools, but ultimately, they should be able to tell how bad the air quality is on sight.

“Get yourself a good landmark that you know is 1.5 miles or 2 miles away,” Russell said. “Say you know Lone Pine (State Park) is 3 miles away. If you can’t see Lone Pine, you automatically know you’re at least in an unhealthy air condition.”

The Flathead City-County Health Department issued a chart to help residents determine how poor the air quality is based on visibility ranges. According to DEQ, the air in the Flathead Valley had been at “very unhealthy” levels for two days as of Friday evening.

This level means everyone should be concerned about their health when outside, and sensitive groups, such as the elderly or those with respiratory issues, should avoid all physical activity outdoors, and everyone else should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion.

Russell said the health department issued a warning to local athletic directors about outdoor practices for high school athletes, who, when they are working out, breathe four times heavier than when at rest.

“That means you’re taking in four times the amount of particulates than anyone just standing and watching,” Russell said.

The schools have been very responsive to the warnings, Russell said, with many coaches and athletic directors scheduling practices for inside.

Russell noted that the fires will eventually go out and the air quality will return to normal, so most breathing issues will be acute, rather than chronic. But prevention, such as not exercising in unhealthy air, can help keep a momentary issue from becoming an ongoing problem.

“We’re going to get better, this is going to clear,” Russell said.

For hourly updates on air quality, visit www.svc.mt.gov/deq/todaysair/ or www.flatheadhealth.org/environmental-health/air-quality.

Click on the image below to see the visibility chart in full size.


Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.