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

Air Quality May Improve As Driving Conditions Worsen

View of inversion over Missoula from Snowbowl
View of inversion over Missoula from Snowbowl

Western Montana’s had some lousy air quality recently, but all that’s about to change. Missoula City/County Air Quality Specialist Ben Schmidt says the Missoula valley’s air quality started to degrade late last week

"Somewhat appropriately it all started on Friday the 13th," says Schmidt. "In the morning that day we did call a Stage One Air Alert."

An inversion was trapping stagnant, dirty air in the valley and conditions worsened over the next five days, presenting potential health risks for the elderly, very young or people with heart and lung diseases. Missoula’s wintertime air can get notoriously grungy, but Schmidt says this time the problem was more widespread than just the Garden City. That’s because for the past week, a high pressure system parked itself over the entire region.

"Exactly. Helena, (Missoula), Kalispell — it was all over western Montana, this high pressure system," Schmidt says. "What happens under those situations is you get these pools of really cold, dense air forming on the valley floors. Everything we generate in those little pockets of cold air doesn’t leave. It’s stuck here. That’s why the air pollution slowly builds up."

Woodstove and vehicle emissions are the main culprits. It takes a lot of energy to scour that stuff out. Experts say that’s finally now starting to happen. That stubborn high pressure system is breaking down, temperatures are rising and more unstable weather is finally pushing into Montana.

There’s a tradeoff though. We gain cleaner air, but also stand a good chance of getting some widespread sleet and freezing rain. That could make for dicey driving conditions during Thursday morning’s commute.
It seems the winter of 2017 just isn’t willing to give us a break.

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