School, Public Health Officials Grapple With Decisions to Hold Athletic Activities in Smoke

Smoke from early-season fires in Alberta sparks discussions over hosting athletic activities amid unhealthy air quality

By Micah Drew
Thick smoke reddens the sun as it sets behind forested ridge lines in Kila on Sept. 13, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When buses carrying Flathead and Glacier high school track and field athletes pulled out of Kalispell on Friday morning headed to Helena for the Western Divisional track and field meet, there was no guarantee that the meet would take place as planned. Smoke from more than 90 wildfires burning in Alberta has blanketed much of Montana, driving air quality into the orange, red and purple levels. While Montana athletes are accustomed to dealing with smoky conditions during athletic seasons, it’s normally early season August and September competitions that are of concern, not mid-May championships.

Post-season competition began this week for several high school sports, adding another layer to the decision-making process compared to early-season fall competitions. On the western side of the state alone, the inaugural state baseball tournament is underway in Butte, while divisional track-and-field meets are scheduled to begin today in Helena, Corvallis and Missoula and divisional tennis tournaments are underway in East Helena and Libby. All those cities registered Air Quality Index (AQI) readings above 150, in the red, as of noon on Friday, except for Libby, which measured 115.

“We’re doing the same thing we do in the fall working with state and local health departments,” said Montana High School Association (MHSA) Executive Director Brian Michelotti. “Obviously, it’s unusual to be doing this in the spring, but we want to make sure we’re making safe decisions for student athletes.”

Officials with local and state health departments, the MHSA and local school activities directors have been engaging in discussions over what constitutes a need to cancel or postpone an activity due to air-quality concerns.

Per guidelines developed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Department of Public Health and Human Services and adopted by MHSA and the Office of Public Instruction, air quality in the unhealthy range brings recommendations for the public to remain indoors as much as possible, limit even light activity and consider rescheduling outdoor activities.

But the decisions contain a lot more nuance than can be read from a color-coded chart, according to Michelotti. “There’s differences to consider in sports, like you have baseball and softball which aren’t as aerobically taxing as say, a 3200 race on the track. We have to factor that in,” he said.

Tim McMahon, activities director for Helena Public Schools, spent much of Friday morning having conversations with the Lewis and Clark County Health Department and MHSA as he prepared to host eight Class AA schools at the Western Divisional track and field meet with the first event scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. As of noon, the AQI reading in Helena was 168 but trending downward.

Air quality map of western Montana shortly after noon on May 19. | Via purpleair.com

“We’re monitoring the weather trends and it looks like it will continue to drop throughout the afternoon and hopefully be in the orange levels. If it started to creep back up or spike, we’d likely shut it down,” he said. “Red air quality, the recommendation is to reduce the stress of outdoor activities and our first field events are pole vault and javelin, which are limited stressors for the kids. The longer track races aren’t until later in the evening, but we’re really going to be monitoring things hour by hour.”

Lewis and Clark County Department of Public Health Environmental Division Programs Supervisor Beth Norberg said officials involved in these discussions are often on the fence trying to analyze the best possible data to make safe choices for athletes.

“The forecast helps, just like with any weather prediction,” Norberg said early Friday afternoon. “If it was staying socked in and I wasn’t seeing any chance of the smoke abating, I wouldn’t have any problem making the call that we recommend all activities stop. It’s hard because you want these things to happen, you want these kids to get to play, but not at the expense of their health.”

Recommendations made to the general public are more straightforward, according to Norberg. When air quality is in the red, or greater than an AQI of 150, the recommendation for the public is “absolutely” to abstain from prolonged outdoor exposure, limit strenuous activity and cancel planned outdoor events. She added that it would not be recommended for a spectator to sit through several hours of a track meet under those conditions.

Athletes and coaches at the divisional track meet will be able to spend the afternoon inside the nearby school gym to limit how long they spend outdoors in the smoky conditions, McMahon said, similar to in a situation involving a rain event.

“It’s alway a balance” MHSA’s Michelotti said. “We’re trying to get these events in and give our student athletes the chance to compete, but the most important thing is having a safe environment for them to do so.”

Updates from the inaugural state baseball tournament in Butte can be found here. Results from the divisional track and field meets, which will determine the final fields for next week’s state championships, will be available on athletic.net following the meet’s conclusion.

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