Breathing Easier: Air Quality Monitors Track Wildfire Smoke

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2023 was the hottest year on record. Among the most serious health threats posed by rising temperatures is smoke from increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires. Nationwide, tens of millions of people are impacted annually by wildfire smoke, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) links to asthma and a wide range of other breathing issues.

“It fluctuates, but overall we are seeing an increase in the number of days that are impacted, and an increase in the severity of that impact,” said Bo Wilkins, Air Quality Bureau Chief for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “There isn’t a fire season anymore. You can have wildfires at any time of the year.”

Once a problem most common in the western United States, the impact of these fires is now being felt nationally. In June 2023, smoke from hundreds of wildfires in Western Canada impacted air quality for nearly 70 million people across 32 U.S. states and Washington D.C.

Bo WIlkins, Air Quality Bureau Chief, Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Small monitors like this one near Cut Bank, Montana monitor the presence of the smallest, most dangerous particulates in the air.

Jessie Fernandes, Section Supervisor, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

In Montana, a state with a long history of wildfires, air quality monitoring and reporting falls in part to DEQ and the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). A key resource in that effort is the Today’s Air page on the DEQ website. Updated hourly and augmented with guidelines provided by DPHHS, the site provides air quality readings from a network of 24 sophisticated air quality monitors around the state. Bolstered by portable monitors that can be set up near active fires, this network tracks the presence of harmful particulates from wildfire smoke.

“There’s plenty of evidence that those particulates of 2.5 (microns) or smaller can impact health because they can be absorbed into the bloodstream, so those are the most critical for us,” said Jessie Fernandes, Section Supervisor, Chronic Disease and Health Prevention Bureau of DPHHS.

To expand this network of monitors, the DEQ and DPHHS are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to install smaller air quality sensors in every high school across the state–170 sensors in all. Teachers at each school have access to the data and can incorporate lessons on air quality into their classrooms. Administrators and community members can use the data to limit outdoor activities or sports when air quality is poor. While these steps help to decrease smoke exposure, poor air quality presents other challenges as well.

A sign outside of a Montana Department of Natural Resources office warns of dangerous fire levels due to hot, dry conditions.

This unit near Helena, Montana houses nine different ambient air monitors.

A roadside sign warns motorists of the presence of fire fighting vehicles near the site of an active wildfire in northwest Montana.

“We are finding that indoor quality is not as good as we would hope, so the big push right now is creating safe indoor areas, similar to what you are seeing in the southwest around heat,” said Wilkins. “Here we need to create good indoor zones with good air quality.”

One of the best ways to create such spaces, Wilkins said, is to stay home with the windows and doors closed, and use a HEPA air filter to keep your air as clean as possible. Other tips from the DPHHS website include running an air conditioner with the air intake turned off, or evacuating to a public building or a friend or relative’s house if you cannot avoid smoke in your home.

We are finding that indoor quality is not as good as we would hope, so the big push right now is creating safe indoor areas.

When smoke from wildfires poses health risks, access to air quality information is key. Each season, DPHHS coordinates with DEQ, the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Commerce and emergency preparedness organizations to coordinate information sharing and dissemination. Along with a host of other resources, the DPHHS produces a public health toolkit for wildfire smoke response, distributed seasonally to county and tribal health departments and tailored for a wide audience.

“Depending on the year or the fire, we’ll end up getting a lot of calls directly from the public,” Fernandes said. “Some of these documents have been created in response to a lot of those questions we get.”

With wildfires increasing in scope and intensity, limiting our exposure to smoke is the healthiest option. As air quality monitoring efforts expand, communities and individuals can stay healthier by accessing air quality resources and taking care of their own health and safety on days when smoke is present.

“There is a lot of talk about wildfire season getting longer,” Fernandes said. “So the message is, ‘Be prepared.’ And I think that message is starting to connect.”

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