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Air quality rated “unhealthy” in Great Falls due to wildfire smoke

Wildfires burning in Montana and other Western states has resulted in widespread hazy skies, and is affecting the air quality.

Saturday’s air quality in Great Falls is rated "unhealthy" by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, meaning that active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

The DEQ rates air quality based on the amount of particulate matter (PM) in the air, which is often caused by smoke from wildfires. In addition to being emitted from wildfires, PM can also come directly from other sources, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, and smokestacks. The EPA says that PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope.

Most of the state is rated "moderate" today. There are several exceptions, however. Parts of the Flathead Valley and areas around Libby and Malta are rated "orange," which means the air is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.  Libby and West Yellowstone are currently in the "red" zone, which means that active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

Here are the ratings and their corresponding color codes, listed in order of increasing danger or health risks: 

  • Good (green): No negative health effects.
  • Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (orange): Increasing likelihood of respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals, aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children should limit prolonged exertion.
  • Unhealthy (red): Increased aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; increased respiratory effects in the general population. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid prolonged exertion; everyone else should limit prolonged exertion.
  • Very Unhealthy (Purple): Significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant risk of respiratory effects in the general population. People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid any outdoor activity; everyone else should avoid prolonged exertion.
  • Hazardous (maroon): Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in the general population. Everyone should avoid any outdoor exertion.

The DEQ provides daily updates on air quality and the factors affecting it; here is Saturday’s update:

There was generally improvement in air quality beginning yesterday evening with the disturbance that moved through the region. Cooler temperatures, gusty winds, and precipitation helped clear out and suppress some of the wildfire smoke that has been blanketing the region all week. Some fire reports mentioned less active behavior, but there generally wasn’t enough precipitation to significantly suppress the wildfires in the region. Many locations have improved to MODERATE, while Libby improved to UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS, and the northeastern sites, Malta and Sidney, have worsened to UNHEALTHY ahead of the disturbance. Southwestern Montana sites are currently GOOD to MODERATE, which is the current location of the main disturbance moving across the state. The northern and northeastern locations are seeing smoke being pushed down from the Canadian fires.

Today’s Forecast

A fast moving cold front is pushing down from the north, lowering temperatures and causing gusty winds. As the front moves through, expect hazy conditions to continue in north-central and northeastern Montana and conditions to deteriorate again mainly due to the wildfire smoke from Canadian fires. Expect UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS to UNHEALTHY conditions to persist, especially given the forecasted precipitation is low in this area. The trough is expected to move across central Montana and south, with more precipitation likely in central and southeast Montana, so air quality should remain MODERATE to GOOD, given no new fires arise from any lightning associated with the disturbance.

Northwest Montana, although experiencing a break, will continue to be smoky due to all the fire activity in that region, coupled with the smoke from British Columbia. Expect UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS to UNHEALTHY conditions to persist, with settling smoke likely overnight.
 

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