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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Unhealthy Air Forces Student Athletes Indoors Across Montana

Government data from 2012 through 2014 shows worsening air quality in many Montana counties including: Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Missoula, Ravalli and Richland Counties.
Josh Burnham
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Smoky air is Montana is forcing Montana's student atheletes inside or limiting their practices.

This year, fire season has collided with the school year all over the west, especially in northwest and north central Montana, where the smoke from blazes as far away as Washington has left the air loaded with particulates that make it unhealthy to breathe, forcing teachers and coaches to decide whether to send students out for recess or practice, or keep them indoors.

In Libby, the high school’s athletic director, Jim Germany has limited high school football practice while the air is in the unhealthy range.

"So most of the time when you have prolonged things like a long workout, you can only do it in section of time in about 15 to 20 minutes and you can’t be outside during that stuff. So like a football team might be able to do a walk through but they can’t do any jogging or running, they have to go in the gym for that."

Steve Jess: And if it’s still this bad when school starts for real next week, how’s that going to affect things?

“Well that’s interesting," says Germany. "I just talked to my elementary principal and he’s going to be using the same scale I have with the DEQ, on just going out to recess. So if the hourly report starts moving up into the unhealthy region, then they don’t go outside for recess and all PE has to be on the inside."

Germany says he’s concerned because the smoke, and even the firefighters themselves, might pose a problem for events planned for this weekend.

"I got a soccer game on Saturday, I got a home cross-country meet Saturday. Ironically, we run a cross-country meet the same place the fire camp is located, so we’re gonna be running through all the firefighters to do our course even if we get to run it. We might have a cold front coming in on Friday so that’s gonna be up in the air on whether or not we even get to do it."

It’s a similar story across much of the state. The state Department of Environmental Quality says the air has frequently been unhealthy from Libby all the way to Malta, as far south as Hamilton. The air quality there has reached unhealthy levels numerous times in the last few weeks.

Hamilton School Superintendent Tom Korst says for the time being his 1,500 elementary and high school students are staying indoors for the whole school day, and that creates a crowding problem.

"Well, yeah, just the fact that they can't go outside is a problem in itself, but you know I have a number of students at recess that have to be in the gym or in their classroom so it just kind of adds to the inconvenience certainly."

Besides the obvious health issues, Korst and other school administrators are concerned about how the lack of practice is affecting their student athletes. At least in this case, everybody’s in the same smoke-filled boat.

"Yeah the high school, especially football and soccer, are practicing inside predominantly. We've had a few practices outside and of course we have games coming up. Football, notably in Salmon, will be interesting to see, because Salmon appears to be in the same predicament we're in."

In Helena, where the air is also rated unhealthy because of smoke, Superintendent Kent Kultgen has given each school principal the prerogative of shortening recess, or cancelling it altogether. He says in four years with the Helena School District, this is the first time he’s had to do that.

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