Air Quality Update For Western Montana, September 6, 2017

Sep 6, 2017

Today's air quality update from Missoula City/County Air Quality Specialist Sarah Coefield:

"Good morning, It's bad out there today. 

We are still under a massive amount of smoke from the Pacific Northwest (PNW) and Canada, which is causing widespread smoke impacts across the county. Air quality is ranging from the upper edge of Unhealthy all the way to Hazardous across most of Missoula County. Our one happy outlier is Rock Creek, which has the best air this morning (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups at 9:00 a.m.), but they are likely to see deteriorating conditions later this morning.

While the air is scummy for all of us, it is worse for folks near active fires. Smoke from the Rice Ridge has been filling the Seeley Lake valley all night, and they are on track for the worst day of the wildfire season to date. Yesterday they had a few hours of improvement, but with the strong high pressure ridge keeping a lid on the valley, and a strong inversion preventing any lift, smoke will be slow to leave the area this afternoon. The inversion is likely to break around noon today, and while conditions will improve, I don't expect the air to suddenly become breathable. The monitor in Seeley Lake has been pegging out over 1,000 ug/m3 since 7:00 a.m. (Our monitor cannot record values over 1,000 ug/m3, and will instead report 994.6 ug/m3 when we've exceeded 1,000. Also, I've just learned that we won't be able to reprogram the monitor, which means we won't know how bad it's getting. Of course, the question is largely academic. We already know the smoke levels are incredibly hazardous.)

Conditions are also Hazardous in Arlee, and Clearwater Junction and likely Hazardous in Florence (our monitor is down, but I heard an eye witness report of lousy visibility). We are seeing Very Unhealthy air quality in Lolo and the Swan Valley.

Air quality is Unhealthy everywhere else.

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 some helpful resources online.

We are unlikely to see any significant improvement today. The high pressure ridge is creating a very stable atmosphere and slowing inversion break. The depressing fact of the matter is that we may see deteriorating air quality later this morning when the inversions break and overhead local smoke mixes down into the valleys. Then, conditions may deteriorate even further when overhead PNW smoke mixes down into our breathing space later this afternoon. Right now, we're just dealing with locally produced smoke near active fires and the same ground level smoke that we had when we went to bed last night. There's a lot more smoke up there, and it's looking like it might make it down to ground level around mid-to-late afternoon.

What I'm saying is, this might not be a good day for that long run. Or any running, really. Maybe stay inside and hug your air filter.

Also, take care of each other. A friend of mine coined the term "smangry" (smoke + angry) to describe how the smoke is creating some short fuses and general unhappiness for everyone. I think we're all getting a bit smangry. Everyone is suffering from the smoke, and with no end in sight, it is only going to get worse. But remember, we're in this together. And hey, the shared suffering means we all have a universal small talk topic. No more awkward silences!

Today is a good day to pay attention to your health and respect how the cumulative exposure to the smoke may be wearing your system down. And don't neglect your mental health. 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.

We recommend everyone get a HEPA air filter to create a clean space in their home. I've attached the HEPA handout to this email. Also, we field a lot of questions about respirators.

The short answer: The Health Department does not recommend the use of a respirator for wildfire smoke because not everyone is healthy enough to use one. Respirators can reduce your exposure to the smoke, but they also put a barrier in front of your face that makes it harder to breathe, which is dangerous for folks with heart or lung disease. If you are interested in using a respirator (NIOSH rated N-95) check with your health care provider to make sure you are healthy enough to use one, and then only use one if it fits correctly. Note that bandanas, surgeon masks, dust masks, etc. will not protect you from the smoke.

The detailed answer:

There are several problems with masks. First, to be effective, a mask needs to be a respirator that is rated to filter out particulate (NIOSH-rated N-95), and it must have a good fit to the face. Facial hair prevents a good fit and would cause a respirator to lose effectiveness.

Because there is some confusion about respirators, folks will sometimes use a face covering (bandana/dust mask/surgeon mask/etc.) that is not protective against the fine particulate in smoke. These same people will then go out and about pursuing their normal activities, thinking they're protected, but actually just exposing themselves to potentially harmful levels of pollution.

We do not recommend people who suffer from asthma, COPD, a heart condition or other health conditions use respirators because it creates a barrier in front of their face that they will then have to pull air through, and that can create a harmful situation on its own.

It is generally considered a better solution for a person with heart or lung disease to instead have access to a clean air shelter (which can be created with a HEPA room air filter). During a smoke event, it is a good idea for everyone to lower their activity levels and seek cleaner air.

While using a respirator is a personal choice, and some may benefit from it if they are in good health and have no choice but to be outside in the smoke, we do not promote the use of respirators to the general public. If someone insists they need a respirator, they should speak with their health care provider to confirm they are healthy enough to use a respirator, and only get one on their health care provider’s recommendation.

Wildfire air quality update: come for the smoke jokes, stay for the health lecture."