Hazy skies here for a few more weeks, can cause health concerns

A blanket of smoke from regional forest fires covers the Madison Valley on Tuesday morning. Photo by Ben Coulter

It’s not uncommon for Montana to be blanketed in a late summer, smoky haze, but it’s been nearly a month since Madison County residents have seen clear skies.

And the bad news is, it might take another couple of weeks before the smoke finally moves out, said Zach Uttech, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Great Falls.

The current smoke comes mostly from large fires burning in central and south central Idaho, Uttech said.

The reason for the prolonged period of smoke in southwest Montana is an upper level ridge of high pressure over Idaho that is creating a southwest flow into Montana. The flow isn’t accompanied with strong winds, which could localize the smoke, but rather mild winds that just seem to maintain a wide spread haze of smoke over the region, he said.

The best solution to the problem will be some sort of weather event that puts an end to what has been a long fire season, Uttech said. However, forecasters aren’t seeing a weather event like that coming in the next two weeks.

“There will be some day to day variation, but with the southwest flow, that smoke is going to continue coming out of Idaho,” he said.

The smoke, particularly on bad days, can cause health problems, particularly for very young and elderly people along with those who struggle with breathing problems, said Theresa Stack, director of the Madison County Public Health Department.

“First you have to know your own health risk factors,” Stack said. “If you’re not breathing impaired and if you’re not a smoker and you’re not feeling it in your lungs, you’re probably okay.”

The danger level of haze is based on how far you can see. And it stands to reason the less you can see the more dangerous the conditions are. However, it’s doesn’t take as much smoke in the air as you may think to cause health problems, she said.

If you can see up to 13 miles, the air is considered moderately unhealthy, which can cause problems for people who have heart and lung issues. If you can see up to about 8.5 miles, the air is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, including the very young, elderly and people with respiratory problems. At this level children should limit exertion.

If visibility is up to five miles, the air condition is considered unhealthy, which can increase aggravation for those with lung and heart disease and everyone should limit prolonged exertion.

If the visibility is up to about two miles the air condition is considered very unhealthy and people in the general population can experience a significant risk of respiratory effects.

Those with respiratory conditions, the elderly and children should avoid outdoor activity.

The air quality is considered hazardous when the visibility is less than 1.3 miles. Everyone could experience significant respiratory problems and people are generally advised to stay indoors.

Allergies also seem to be worse with the smoke in the air, Stack said.

With the heat, many people have to keep their windows open in their homes at night, which can exasperate the problem. Using a furnace fan to circulate the air in your home through the furnace filter can sometimes help, she said.

For more information on health conditions associated with the smoke from the wildfires, contact the Madison County Public Health Department at 843-4295.

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