HELENA—The summer of 2020 is looking a little different in the midst of a pandemic, but one thing remains the same—it’s wildfire season. Wildfire smoke can impact Montana air quality causing unhealthy air.
“It’s important to protect your lungs during wildfire season,” said DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan. “This year, knowing the impacts of COVID-19 on the respiratory system, it’s especially important to pay attention to air quality and keep your lungs healthy.”
Wildfire smoke can affect Montana communities even where there are no wildfires in the immediate vicinity.
“It’s not uncommon to see smoke in Montana skies migrating from wildfires burning in other states or from Canada,” says David Klemp, DEQ air quality bureau chief. “DEQ regularly monitors air quality so residents can have information at their fingertips to ensure they are taking the necessary precautions to protect their lungs.”
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 and COVID-19. 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.
Cloth face coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke because these coverings do not capture most small particles in smoke. Masks with better filtering such as N95s provide the best protection against wildfire smoke particulates, but because N95s and other medical-grade masks are used by frontline healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the best response to heavy wildfire smoke is to remain indoors. Anyone with lung or heart disease, or who is chronically ill, should check with their health care provider about which mask is best for them.
When air quality is unhealthy, DPHHS and DEQ 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.
- Monitor the COVID-19 outbreak at covid19.mt.gov
- 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.
This summer, DEQ will post smoke forecasts to the DEQ website every Monday. To view the updates visit: TodaysAir.mt.gov and click on the “Wildfire Smoke Outlook” link.