The first 12 days of September registered the worst period of air quality all summer in the Bitterroot Valley, but the beginning of the end is in the forecast for Thursday and Friday, according to the National Weather Service.
“It’s a dramatic change compared to what we’ve been experiencing over the last couple months,” said Trent Smith, a meteorologist at the NWS in Missoula. “It should improve air quality dramatically; it will put a damper on all fires, and the precipitation will pull the smoke out of the air as these two low-pressure systems move through.”
The NWS has issued a winter storm watch for the higher elevations, where mountains above 6,000 feet could expect a few inches of snow, according to Smith. Widespread precipitation is expected throughout the Bitterroot Valley Thursday and Friday, as well as next week from Monday through Thursday.
In addition to the first significant precipitation event in months, the temperatures will also drop between 30 and 40 degrees around the valley Friday. The NWS expects a hard frost to occur Saturday night through Sunday morning, with temperatures in the high 20s to mid 30s.
Air quality in the Bitterroot Valley during the past few weeks has caused residents to reconsider their behavior, particularly when it comes to children’s exercise at school. The first 12 days of September the 24-hour average concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter was nearly 80 micrograms per cubic meter, a quantity well within the unhealthy categorization from the Department of Environmental Quality.
A micron is 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair, which is why most dust and particle masks are incapable of protecting lungs from the damage caused by wildfire smoke.
Nine of the first 12 days of September had a 24-hour average concentration of particulate matter in the unhealthy category, two days were unhealthy for sensitive groups, and one day had moderate air.
Kristen Martin, an air quality meteorologist with the DEQ, said during a briefing Wednesday that most of Montana will still be dealing with air quality impacts on Thursday morning.
“We still have high levels of particulates in close proximity to active fires, and we’re not expecting too much improvement today,” Martin said. “The big change is expected tomorrow with widespread rain over most of Montana. Most areas should see good air quality by Friday morning, generally good air quality for the weekend, and overall we’re hopefully on the downward trend for air quality impacts.”
The best advice from air quality specialists is to avoid any strenuous aerobic activity when the air is unhealthy, and around the Bitterroot, people have been altering their normal behavior.
Daly Elementary School Principal Nate Lant had a creative way of dealing with the air pollution and lack of exercise and free play opportunities for the young students - he had bouncy houses set up in the school on Monday, a better air day.
“In nine days of school we had one day of outside recess,” Lant said. “The kids had done a great job - they just hunkered down but it was hard - they had played outside all summer then had to stay indoors when school started.”
Lant said the students were feeling cooped up.
“The lack of movement is not great for learning and doesn’t make them more excited for school,” he said. “This was a way to get them moving and reward them for doing a great job.”
Each student in second and third grade at Daly got an hour of bouncy house play, and students in fourth and fifth grade went to a water park in Missoula for two hours. Monday’s air quality was good enough to have sack lunches outside.
Lant said the extravagant fun is something usually reserved for the end of the year, but with testing coming up the students needed to be re-energized and motivated for learning.
“We have 7 to 11 year olds, and being cooped up that long is hard,” he said. “We brought in the bouncy houses for their well-being and health both mentally and physically. They were sweating and had a great time.”
Children are not the only people affected by the poor air quality in the Bitterroot Valley. Air quality affects the elderly and those with pulmonary sensitivities. Dominic Farrenkopf, the activities director at Sapphire Lutheran Homes, said residents have thought twice about outdoor activity lately.
“We still offer all of our outdoor activities, but we’ve have had lower participation in outdoor activities,” Farrenkopf said. “People who are affected by the smoke choose to stay home inside. We also close the windows in the common rooms.”
Looking forward to fire seasons to come, Katie Scholl, a Ravalli County Public Health Board member, recommended at a board of health meeting installing air scrubber systems in all the schools in the Bitterroot Valley.
"This would be a costly endeavor, but we should look into grants to pay for them," Scholl said.
The scrubbers Scholl recommends to be put in Bitterroot schools are built by a company called Air Scrubber Plus, the only company that sells scrubbers approved by the California EPA. An air scrubber system that cleans the air of particulates for a 3,000 square foot room costs around $800.