Thursday, November 30, 2023

Superior Ranger District monitors air quality

Mineral Independent | September 21, 2022 12:00 AM

Air quality was on everyone’s minds last week in Mineral County. Especially when you looked out the front door and could barely see the mountains, the air smelled like smoke, and going outdoors was far from pleasant.

During those times, smoke monitors that measure particulate matter in the air are valuable resources for those making decisions regarding public safety, like school sporting events.

For over a week the valleys of Western Montana were blanketed by thick wildfire smoke traveling from Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Canada. Although there are numerous fires around the region, none are actively burning in Mineral County. Nonetheless, citizens young and old had to deal with poor air quality and that can affect many parts of daily life.

With the school year underway, activities like recess, and after school sports such as football, both rely on current air quality data to determine if it’s safe to send kids outside. Normally schools in Mineral County have to base their judgment calls off of smoke monitor numbers in Thompson Falls, or even from readings in Missoula. But with the recent ongoing smoke concerns, Fire Management Officer for the Superior Ranger District, Lorie Cotter decided it was time to put out their air quality monitor on site in Superior.

“We just put it out last week, we usually don’t have a problem with stagnate air compared to other valleys like Thompson Falls and Missoula. Our valley’s generally have good winds to clear things out, but in this case with the wildfire smoke from out of state people were wanting to know what our readings were,” Cotter explained.

The Forest Service partners with agencies to utilize “real time” monitoring in communities to provide instant feedback, which is helpful in keeping the public and health officials informed. The monitors transmit smoke concentrations to satellites and then back to web-based tools that deliver current smoke concentrations. Exposure is worrisome because a large percentage of wildland fire smoke emissions are fine particulate matter that are able to penetrate deep into the lungs.

Right now, residents in Mineral County can check and click on the triangle icon that is over Superior. The website includes a graph with the recent air quality history, certain actions for those in sensitive health groups, and smoke trends. A dial on the website breaks the particulate readings into categories, ranging from good to hazardous.

But Cotter mentioned, “Although smoke and air quality aren’t my expertise, I would recommend people to pay closer attention to the number than the color on the scale.”

When the smoke monitor was first placed on the front lawn of the Forest Service Offices in Superior the Air Quality Index (AQI) was at 152 on the afternoon of September 12. The highest AQI was 193 on September 13, then it dropped below 100 following some rain showers on September 15. Cotter stated, “I plan on leaving it up and running now through October or November even to monitor any more smoke that may come from neighboring fires.” The AQI from the Superior Smoke Monitor is updated at 20 past the hour, every hour.

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