Air Quality Awareness is Important During Wildfire Season

HELENA, Mont. (NMB) – As Montanans and visitors emerge from a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, summer travel around the state—including camping—is likely to increase. Summer also means wildfire season. Wildfire smoke can impact Montana’s air quality causing unhealthy air.

“It’s important to pay attention to air quality as you are traveling around the state this summer,” said DEQ Director Chris Dorrington. “Check air quality on DEQ’s Today’s Air website and take the necessary precautions whether you’re visiting or you’re lucky enough to call Montana home.”

Exposure to wildfire pollutants can irritate lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, including COVID-19. Populations known to be vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure include: children, senior citizens, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease—including asthma and diabetes—and outdoor workers. Other factors that may contribute to increased vulnerability include homelessness and limited access to medical care. Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing are common to both wildfire smoke exposure. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, you should seek prompt medical attention by calling 911 or calling ahead to the nearest emergency facility.

Wildfire smoke can affect Montana communities even where there are no wildfires in the immediate vicinity.

“It’s important to protect your lungs during wildfire season,” said DPHHS Director Adam Meier. “It’s especially important to pay attention to air quality and realize that conditions can change very quickly. Another important way to stay healthy this fire season is to avoid COVID-19. The best way to do that is to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. It’s readily available now all across Montana.”

For information about the COVID-19 vaccine, go to covidvaccine.mt.gov.

For information about how to protect your health during wildfire season, go to dphhs.mt.gov/airquality

When air quality is unhealthy, state agencies encourage Montanans and visitors to consider the following tips to protect their health:

  • Before heading outside for any physical activity, check for air quality updates and pay attention to any hazardous air quality advisories. Air quality information is updated regularly at: TodaysAir.mt.gov
  • When wildfires occur, continue to monitor DEQ’s site for changes in air quality.
  • An N95 respirator offers protection against wildfire smoke particulate matter when worn correctly to achieve a proper fit and seal. However, the use of filtering facepiece respirators can cause breathing issues for some individuals. For this reason, individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease, should consult with their healthcare provider prior to respirator use. Respirators do not come in sizes suitable for children, so they are not effective at reducing wildfire smoke exposure for this population.
  • If the air quality is poor, limit outdoor activities and keep your indoor air clean by keeping all doors and windows shut and setting any air conditioning units to recirculate indoor air.
  • Consider using HEPA air cleaners indoors to reduce overall smoke exposure.
  • Pay attention to visibility. How far can you see in the distance? Looking at visibility can help estimate air quality.
  • Maintain an adequate supply of food and medication (more than five days).
  • If you have a chronic lung or heart condition, check with your health care providers before the fire season about precautions to take during smoke events.
  • Do not perform any activities that will add to indoor pollution.
  • Use the air recirculate feature in vehicles when possible.
  • If traveling, be aware of the air quality in the area and have a back-up plan.

This summer, DEQ will post smoke forecasts during times when smoke is causing air quality impacts. The forecasts will be posted to social media and can be viewed on: TodaysAir.mt.gov by clicking on the “Wildfire Smoke Outlook” link.

“The best way to mitigate smoke exposure and poor air quality is to prevent fires from occurring in the first place,” said DNRC Director Amanda Kaster. “Over 80% of wildland fires in Montana are human caused and these fires can put our homes, communities, and health at risk.”

It is important that we all take action to prevent wildfire starts when working and recreating outdoors. Here are a few simple ways to reduce your wildfire risk and limit the chances of smoke events occurring:

  • Avoid burning or conducting other activities that involve sparks or fire on hot, windy, or dry days.
  • Never leave a fire unattended, and ensure your campfire or burn is cold to the touch when you are finished.
  • Regularly maintain your vehicle and equipment and avoid driving or parking your vehicle and operating equipment near dry vegetation.
  • Report any unattended or uncontrolled fires to 9-1-1.

Through our collective action to prevent wildland fire starts, we can minimize the number and severity of smoke events this summer.

Knowing how to prevent wildfires and what to do in the event of a smoke event will prepare visitors and Montanans for a safe summer.

“We’re excited to welcome visitors to Montana this summer and want to make sure you have the information you need to plan a safe trip,” said Montana Department of Commerce Director Scott Osterman. “Wildfires are a natural part of summer in Montana and there is usually no reason to let them stop you from enjoying your Montana experience.”

Courtesy of the Department of Environmental Quality

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