Planning summer outings here in Montana used to be simple: Enlist participants, round up gear, drive to the river or trailhead and go. But as I plan this year's adventures, I'm warning the possible participants: Smoke may force cancellation.
Last August was dicey. With wildfires roaring in 11 Western states, all our outings were at the mercy of wind patterns. Every morning at home in Helena that month, I began my day by pulling up Montana Department of Environmental Quality's daily wildfire-smoke update. Prepared by the state DEQ's air quality meteorologist, the update predicts which areas of Montana will be affected by wildfire smoke that day. Satellite photos on the site were revealing, and troubling.
I wasn't surprised to see smoke plumes headed our way from the Gold Pan Complex Fire in the Bitterroot Valley, across the Continental Divide in western Montana. And it was easy to trace the smoke from fires in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, which was heading almost directly east toward where we live. But what surprised me was how often the photos also showed plumes streaking northeast from wildfires in California to reach us in central Montana.
Forecasts and satellite data are of limited utility. So if I saw worrisome indications in the satellite photo or the air quality forecast, I'd step outside and run this reality check recommended by the DEQ: If I could see the ridge known as the Sleeping Giant, across the valley in the Big Belt Range, the air quality was good enough and our outdoor plans could go forward. If I couldn't see the Sleeping Giant, plans were aborted and we'd hunker down inside until the winds shifted and the skies cleared.
As much as I hate to waste a warm summer day, I won't gamble with my health. The Montana chapter of the American Lung Association advises staying inside on smoky days, warning that the fine particulates from wildfire smoke increase the risk of respiratory tract infection, reduced lung function and bronchitis. In fact, once again this year the lung association gave my county (Lewis and Clark) a failing grade for particulate pollution on a 24-hour basis, due in part to wildfire smoke.
In a story published this May in our local paper, Kim Davit, manager of Montana Initiatives for the ALA, said that while winter air quality has improved here in our county, summer air quality has worsened due to the trend toward increased wildfires. Moreover, even low concentrations of wildfire smoke reduce visibility. What's the point of going out in Big Sky Country if the world-class vistas are obscured?
For these reasons, it's not surprising that Montana's official travel website now warns tourists of summer fire conditions, and provides links to fire incident data and Montana DEQ's daily smoke update. It's likely that savvy tourists from back East may heed those smoke warnings, cancel their summer trips to Montana and go to, say, Florida instead. But for those of us who live here, it's a trickier proposition. During much of the year, we look forward to warm summer days, snow-free trails in the high country and lazy hours on the rivers.
And yet, during recent summers, many of those plans have been stymied by smoke. Last August, my wife and I suffered cabin fever when smoke kept us cooped up inside for days at a stretch. When we couldn't stand it any longer, we'd race out of town to picnic in a smoke-free area of the state for the day, just to savor blue skies and clean air.
This year, we have above-average snowpack in Montana, so our fire season locally may not be so bad. But by May, California had already experienced numerous serious fires. We'll see how the smoke season plays out.
Just to be clear, I well understand that wildland fires are part of the natural order, helping forests regenerate by (among other things) returning nutrients to the soil and clearing undergrowth. I'm also glad that public-land managers have come to recognize the ecological benefits of fire, and I don't seek any change in fire policy. But more and more, I dread fire season, or, more precisely, smoke season. I'm tired of being downwind of so many Western wildfires, sick of sitting indoors on otherwise gorgeous summer days with every door and window sealed up tight. I'm beginning to see significant lifestyle changes coming.
At some point, will some of us Montanans become "smokebirds" and flee our beloved state (or, at least, its smokier portions) during the worst of fire season? It pains me to even consider it. But if climate change is increasing the incidence of wildfires across the West, we "downwinders" here on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies may find our options limited.
Bill Cook is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Helena.