Smoke to stay this week


A billboard image of the Judith Mountains provides contrast to the hazy conditions around Lewistown Tuesday morning.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Smoke settled into Central Montana this weekend, and according to the Montana DEQ, it’s here to stay.

Kristen Martin, State Air Quality Meteorologist, blamed the conditions on a nation-long pressure ridge.

“Right now, we’re under a ridge of high pressure,” she said. “That means real stable conditions, so smoke gets stuck under this ridge.”

The ridge extends down the West Coast to Texas, and is one the factors responsible for holding Hurricane Harvey in place. In the northern U.S., the high-pressure ridge is trapping smoke from a strong fire season, blanketing parts of not just Montana, but Oregon, Washington, Idaho and even Wyoming.

Although stable weather conditions might at least sound beneficial for firefighters, Martin cautioned against optimism.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword because under a [high-pressure] ridge, we typically get hot temperatures as well, and hot temperatures can fuel fire activity,” she said.

Martin forecast little to no precipitation over the next several days, although the high-pressure ridge should break up towards the end of tomorrow or Friday.

“When that occurs, typically we see some more critical fire weather with more strong breezes and red flag warnings,” she said. “So, we’ll likely see more smoke produced towards the end of the week. For smoke, there’s not much good news on the horizon.”

In response to the state’s extended fire season, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services has issued press releases aimed at helping people deal with decreasing air quality. State Medical Officer Dr. Greg Holzman said at their core, all of the releases focus on one thing.

“Minimize your risk,” he said. “The best thing we can do is prevention. The best prevention would be for all of the fires to go away, but we realize we don’t have that control.”

Holzman best advice was to limit exposure by staying indoors, switching ac units to recirculate air and recirculating the air in vehicles. He did highlight an ineffective measure, though: facial coverings such as dust masks or wet bandanas.

“The main point we want to get across is they’re not helping,” he said. “The fine particles still get through that, and then you’re putting it over your mouth, which makes it harder to breathe.”

Holzman noted pregnant women, older individuals and children are all at higher risk. For those groups, as well as patients with chronic cardiovascular or respiratory diseases, he said press releases should serve as reminders to check in with providers.

“The particles in the air can compromise the cells and put their immunity defense system at risk,” he said.

Whether they’re at high risk or not, Holzman encouraged all Montanans to take symptoms seriously as the smoke thickens.

“If you’re having chest pain, if you’re having shortness of breath or pain in the chest, neck, shoulders: Those kinds of things, that’s something to take seriously,” he said. “Don't just blame it on the smoke, get evaluated by a healthcare provider.”

What’s next?
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