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Wildfires Changing the State of Our Air

When you think of Montana, you probably think of wide-open spaces, high plains, big sky country and presumably fresh, clean air. But the American Lung Association's 20th annual "State of the Air" report finds something unexpected—increasing air pollution in the "Big Sky Country." The culprit? Wildfires driven by climate change. Montana is just one example of how unchecked climate change is increasing air pollution levels and putting the health of more Americans at risk.

Each year, "State of the Air" provides a "report card" on air pollution all across the nation. This year's report reviews data collected from air quality monitors from 2015 to 2017, and focuses on the two most common and harmful types of air pollution: ozone (smog) and particle pollution (soot). Montana's 2017 fire season was number one in terms of acres burned, and according to reports, probably the largest in more than 100 years. The smoke from wildfires is a powerful source of harmful particle pollution, and 2017's record 1.4 million acres burned had a major impact on Montana's air.

Map of Montana's Crying Fire

Satellite image showing the fires affecting Missoula, MT in August 2017.

Looking at Montana's grades in "State of the Air" 2019, we see that of the 13 Montana counties that have air quality monitors and received grades for unhealthy particle pollution days, 12 received an "F" and one a "D" grade. For example, Missoula, MT ranked #5 for short term particle pollution and #11 for annual particle pollution, significantly worse rankings than last year. And while we normally think of air pollution as a "city problem" particle pollution levels have been rising in many rural areas across the entire high plains and Pacific Northwest part of the country. Lincoln County, MT ranked #10 for annual particle pollution, with the same particle levels reported as Pittsburgh, PA. The common thread is that all these western areas were plagued by wildfires in 2017.

So where does climate change come in? According to a report by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), the wildfire season was extremely hot and dry throughout the entire season, and fires occurred across the entire state. All three years included in this year's "State of the Air" ranked among the hottest years in global history. The rising temperatures related to a changing climate contribute to droughts, which cause more severe and longer wildfire seasons. In fact, as early as June in 2017, the Governor of Montana had to declare a drought emergency in 18 counties.

"Montana is almost a test case in how difficult it is to maintain improvements in air quality," says Ronni Flannery, Director of Advocacy for the Lung Association's Healthy Air Campaign, in Montana. "The eastern part of the state does indeed enjoy fairly clean air. But western Montana, like Missoula where I live, has a complicated air quality history, to say the least.

"Western Montana is now in its third wave of battling particulate pollution. First, there were heavy industrial emissions from factories, which the original Clean Air Act improved. Then in the late 1970s, high oil prices made many people switch to wood for heating fuel—a very high source of air pollution. A series of local and state laws helped clean up the dirtiest wood burners, and things were better for a while. Now it's wildfires. We'll have to address climate change to reverse this trend of longer and more severe wildfire seasons," Flannery explains.

InciWeb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Rice Ridge Fire

For example, the town of Seeley Lake, near Missoula, suffered severe fires and consequently had 35 more days of hazardous air in this year's report. Some days, the air was so bad that the air quality monitors were "topped out" and couldn't measure it. The health impact of days like these is serious and lasts longer than expected. In fact, a University of Montana study found that residents impacted by the devastating Rice Ridge Fire showed reduced lung function a full year after the fire.

"This is not just a Montana issue," says Flannery. "Heat and droughts from climate change are making fire a threat across the country, including increases in places like California, Georgia, Florida and more.  We must protect the Clean Air Act and defend its power to address the pollutants that drive climate change."

How you can help:

Join us in our fight for healthy air


Is a wildfire near? Here’s how to protect your lungs!

  • Stay indoors. People living close to the fire-stricken areas should remain indoors and avoid breathing smoke, ashes and other pollution in the area.
  • Protect the air in your home. Keep doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners on the recirculation setting. Consider using an air purifier that has a HEPA filter to capture harmful particles in your home and circulate air around the whole room to help clear the air in your home from smoke.
  • Keep an eye on symptoms. Higher levels of smoke in some areas can make breathing more difficult. If you are experiencing symptoms, contact your physician immediately.
  • Take precautions for kids. Extra precaution should be taken for children and teens, who are more susceptible to smoke. Their lungs are still developing, and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) for their size than adults.
  • Ask for help. The American Lung Association’s Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA is staffed by nurses and respiratory therapists and is a free resource to answer any questions about the lungs, lung disease and lung health, including how to protect yourself during wildfires.

See more tips about protecting your health during emergencies and natural disasters.

For those with asthma or COPD:

Create an Asthma or COPD Travel Pack. Those with chronic lung disease are encouraged to gather all of their medications, delivery devices, prescriptions and insurance cards in one spot so that can quickly be transported in the event of an evacuation. A Travel Pack could include:

  • Both quick-relief and controller medicine
  • Medicine delivery devices, including nebulizers and spacers
  • Copies of an Asthma Action Plan or COPD Action Plan
  • Written prescriptions, in case medicines are lost, destroyed or run-out
  • Insurance card and healthcare provider contact information
  • Peak flow meter
  • Allergy medicines

We’ve partnered with Dyson to bring you this important information and to provide air purifiers to communities hardest hit to reduce the amount of particle pollution in community spaces and homes. The American Lung Association appreciates Dyson’s support as we continue to help communities affected by wildfires.

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Related Topic: Healthy Air


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