Bad Air Daze 

The confusion that caused last week’s smoke-out

Like most tasks in life, a person can do a job with precision for a hundred days running and no one will utter a peep. Come that 101st day, however, one small error can bring down the wrath of an entire community. Such was the case last Thursday when Missoula experienced what one public official called an “acute air pollution incident.”

To anyone in the Missoula Valley that day, the nature of that “incident” was glaringly apparent. Sometime mid-Thursday afternoon, Missoula residents began to notice an acrid smell of smoke, a metallic taste in their mouths, burning throats and watery eyes. Others reported more acute health effects such as coughing, wheezing, sinus irritation and difficulty breathing.

By 7 p.m., a monitor on the roof of the Missoula Health Department was registering air particulate levels of 91 micrograms per cubic meter of air, more than double the level considered unacceptable for a typical day in the valley.

Along I-90 east of Missoula, the smoke, emanating primarily from slash pile burns being conducted by Plum Creek Timber near the lower Blackfoot River, totally obscured the mountains and caused headlights from oncoming traffic to appear a rusty orange. Calls to Missoula County’s 9-1-1 Center spiked noticeably, as they did to the Health Department, which was closed for Veteran’s Day and didn’t receive the messages until the following morning.

A St. Patrick Hospital employee (who asked not to be identified) reported that even patients inside the hospital were complaining about the smoke. One passenger arriving on a flight into Missoula Airport commented that the smell inside the aircraft was so strong that the pilot had to come on the intercom to reassure passengers that the plane wasn’t on fire.

So what went wrong?

That was the question being asked this week by members of the Montana-Idaho Airshed Management Group (informally known as “Smoke Management”) who gathered at the Health Department Wednesday to figure out how it happened and what can be done to prevent it from occurring again.

“Under good conditions, nobody will notice that there’s 5,000 to 8,000 acres burning in their area,” says Rick Ammons, a meteorologist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality who coordinates burn activities for Smoke Management. “This time I think what happened is, enough slight problems occurred that they balled up and became a real big problem.”

Smoke Management is a voluntary organization of 27 federal, state and local agencies and major private burners in both states, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Smurfit-Stone Container and Plum Creek. Established in 1978, the group oversees 25 airsheds in both states, coordinating burns to reduce the impact of smoke on air quality. During a typical burn season, the group oversees 3,500 to 4,000 acres of burn per day, often as much as 14,000 acres a day.

On Wednesday, Nov. 10, Ammons issued his daily burn restrictions for the following day. Weather conditions appeared favorable for burning and the airsheds that were closed did not include the Missoula Valley area. On Thursday, Plum Creek began burning at 9 a.m. and had finished setting its fires by noon, according to Steve Hayes, senior forester with Plum Creek. The timber company burned 35 acres on Johnson Creek and 100 acres on Gold Creek. “These were small areas, relatively speaking,” says Hayes.

By mid-afternoon the westerly and southwesterly winds that usually carry smoke away from Missoula were instead out of the east, carrying the smoke down the Clark Fork River, through Hellgate Canyon and into Missoula Valley. Part of the problem, admits Ammons, was that he didn’t communicate directly with Plum Creek that day.

“I think there was a breakdown in that communication,” says Ammons. “I didn’t want to have to shut down the whole airshed because of [Plum Creek’s] burning, so I just called them and thought that was taken care of. On Thursday I went home thinking everything was quite under control. Plum Creek had gotten my message but I guess interpreted it differently from what I intended.”

Compounding the problem was the fact that so many government offices and private businesses were closed for Veteran’s Day, providing Ammons with less data than usual. Some burners probably assumed that Ammons wasn’t working either.

“We deal with a huge amount of information every day,” says Ammons, who likens his job to an air traffic controller, coordinating hundreds of burns each day around constantly changing weather data. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose.”

All this likely comes as little comfort to those who suffer from respiratory illness. Missoula County ranks second in the state only behind Yellowstone County for the number of people with lung cancer, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia. Those patients are often children and the elderly. As Health Department Director Ellen Leahy notes, “An incident like this one can set them off right away and they can suffer for days.”

Thus far, Plum Creek has issued no formal statement about last week’s incident. Based on weather forecasts and burn restrictions, they were operating within the bounds of county burn regulations, which are even stricter than state law.

That said, even a legally permissible action can result in harm. If nothing more, the parties responsible for this assault on our public health owe an apology to those who suffered most from it. Aside from preventing its reoccurrence, it’s the least they can do.

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