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

Air Quality Update for Western Montana, August 10 2017

Rice Ridge Fire

Today's update from Missoula Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield:

"The combination of active fires, strong inversions and Canadian smoke means we all woke up to varying degrees of misery this morning.

Seeley Lake has once again seen smoke reach Hazardous levels. The Health Department has recommended Seeley Lake residents get out of the smoke if they are able to. You can find the official recommendation and some helpful resources online. Please note that the Red Cross Shelter in the Potomac Valley is on stand-by and can be ready to go with an hour's notice. Anyone seeking to stay at the shelter may call the Red Cross of Montana at 1-800-272-6668.

When air quality is Hazardous, all people should limit or avoid outdoor exertion and leave the area or stay indoors with filtered air when possible. Anyone experiencing symptoms of heart of lung disease associated with smoke exposure should contact their health care provider.

Conditions in Missoula, Lolo and Arlee are Unhealthy this morning. Smoke started accumulating in Lolo at midnight, and it made its way into Missoula by roughly 3 a.m. So far, we haven't seen the smoke spread very far beyond Missoula - conditions in Frenchtown and Rock Creek are still Moderate (although, Rock Creek is flirting with Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups). Smoke from the Liberty Fire has once again funneled into the Arlee valley and conditions have been deteriorating all morning.

Smoke from the Rice Ridge fire is headed up the Swan valley, and conditions in Condon may be Unhealthy or worse.

When air quality is Unhealthy, people with heart or lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should limit heavy or prolonged exertion and limit time spent outdoors. People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan. People experiencing symptoms of heart or lung disease associated with smoke exposure should contact their health care provider.

Conditions in Florence are currently Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. When air quality is Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, people with heart or lung disease, children and the elderly should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

The Canadian smoke blanketing western Montana (and Idaho and Washington), continues to make plume identification a little challenging. Still, it looks like the Lolo Peak fire is responsible for the smoke in Lolo and Missoula. Smoke from the Liberty, Rice Ridge, Sunrise and Sapphire Complex fires are all trapped in their adjacent fires.

There's just a lot of smoke out there. We have smoke trapped under inversions near active fires and a hulking mass of Canadian smoke looming above us. The inversions should start to break before noon, and by 1 p.m. there should be pretty good convective lift to get the smoke up and out of our breathing space. However, aside from some nice convection, there's not going to be much movement up in the atmosphere. And what little movement there is, will be from the northwest, which means yet more Canadian smoke in our future. Today's mixing height will be pretty darn high, which means there's the added possibility of Canadian smoke that's currently far overhead ending up in our valleys.

What I'm trying to say is, this might not be a very good air quality day. I think there will be some smoke lifting just thanks to convection, but it's not going to go very far, and when our smoke goes up, there's a good chance the Canadian smoke will come down. Then, later this evening, our smoke will also come down and have a nice multinational smoke party in our breathing space.

Seeley Lake will be the area that sees the most dramatic improvement this afternoon. The air is unlikely to reach pristine conditions, but will likely be an order of magnitude better than it was this morning. For the number nerds, the 1-hour PM2.5 average concentrations at 9 a.m. was 958 ug/m3. That's literally more than 10 times worse than the Unhealthy air we have in Missoula this morning.

There's a chance of thunderstorms this afternoon, which may lead to gusty winds over the wildfires in our region. Localized strong breezes resulting from any storms *may* scour smoke out of a few lucky areas, but any relief will be short-lived, and those same breezes are likely to lead to additional fire growth."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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