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

Air Quality Update For Western Montana, September 8, 2017


Today's air quality report from Missoula City-County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield:

"Good morning, We woke up to yet another day of white skies and muted light. Some of us had the added bonus of stale campfire smell, which means there's a bit more local smoke making its way to the Missoula Valley this morning. (When you can see the smoke, but you can't smell the smoke, the odds are pretty good it was generated by distant fires. The volatile organic chemicals that give smoke that acrid taste and smell don't travel very well.)

Conditions are pretty bad across the county, but with the high pressure ridge moving east and the winds aloft shifting direction, we are actually seeing slightly lesser smoke impacts today compared to yesterday. 

In general, there are widespread smoke impacts with the worst smoke near active fires. The inversions are pretty strong this morning, but with the high pressure ridge moving off, some of the larger valleys should be able to break out of their inversions before noon. Unfortunately, this may just mean deteriorating morning air quality for those of us near active fires. There is still a lot of smoke overhead, and while mixing heights today may not be quite high enough to reach the remnants of the Smoke Spiral, there is plenty of local smoke close enough to ground level to come down and hit us later this morning.

We are going to see a pattern change starting this afternoon. The winds aloft over our area have shifted to be from the southwest, and we're coming out from underneath the Smoke Spiral. Our main source of out-of-state smoke today will be Idaho. There is still quite a bit of smoke over Idaho, and they have a lot of active fires. We will first see that overhead smoke make its way to our area, and then, when their fires wake up, we may start to see some plumes headed our way. Still, you can actually see parts of Idaho emerging from the smoke in today's satellite photo, and that's tremendously exciting.

There are also honest-to-goodness clouds headed our way. We are unlikely to see any measurable precipitation from them, but it is awfully nice to see evidence of the increasing atmospheric instability. There is a decent chance that some of the smoke that has been so firmly entrenched in our valleys will start moving around this afternoon. I expect several areas will start to see improvement from convection, and a few lucky souls may see some decent ground-level breezes to push smoke away. Unfortunately, mixing heights are still pretty low today, and smoke that lifts up may not all reach transport breezes and be ushered away. There's also a very slight chance of isolated thunderstorms this afternoon, which, you know, yay weather! But also, dang. I don't think any of us have an appetite for lightning or gusty winds over fires.

The transport breezes will be generally from the northwest today, which means parts of the county may see some smoke from the Sheep Gap Fire or other fires in the Highway 200 Complex, and the Liberty and Black fires may send smoke to the Potomac Valley and Clearwater Junction.

The most significant and widespread smoke clearing is likely to occur on Saturday. We will see much stronger surface and transport breezes, and mixing heights that will allow for smoke to escape the valleys. However, it is looking like we can expect active fire behavior and more smoke generation. There's a chance of more high pressure at the start of next week, so if the fires do have a heyday on Saturday or Sunday, we could be reaping the smoke consequences for a few days next week. Looking far ahead, it appears that we may be finally starting to see more seasonal weather and a more active weather pattern. This does not mean the fires will go out. It does mean that smoke impacts will be more intermittent and will be more plume driven than what we've been seeing. Folks near active fires can expect continued morning smoke impacts until the fires are out.

We are seeing Unhealthy air quality in Missoula, Frenchtown and the Potomac valley, Very Unhealthy air quality in Clearwater Junction, the Swan Valley and Arlee, and Hazardous air quality in Seeley Lake, Lolo and Florence. Rock Creek is once again our one happy spot with the least smoke in the county. They had Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups air quality this morning, but it's starting to trend toward Unhealthy.

Conditions in Seeley Lake, Lolo and Florence are likely to improve when the inversions break and the pooled smoke is able to leave the valley floor. Conditions in the Swan Valley are likely to deteriorate when the inversions break and smoke from the Rice Ridge Fire is able to mix down. It should be a temporary smoke incursion - with the high pressure ridge moving off, that smoke should hopefully be able to lift out of the valley later in the afternoon. There will be variable air quality across the county today, but the odds of anyone seeing dramatic improvements or clear skies are pretty still pretty low.

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.

When air quality is Very Unhealthy, people with heart or lung disease, smokers, children and the elderly should avoid heavy or prolonged exertion and stay indoors when possible. People with asthma should follow their asthma management plan. Everyone else should limit prolonged exertion and limit time spent outdoors. 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 or lung disease associated with smoke exposure should contact their health care provider. 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 somehelpful resources online.

The relentless smoke cover, its wear and tear on the body, and the inability to get outside or exercise can contribute to feelings of anxiety or depression. Check with your primary care provider if you are experiencing mental distress due to the smoke, or call the Western Montana Mental Health Center at 532-9700."

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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