Gaps in US wildfire smoke warning network leave many exposed

Aug 25, 2021, 10:09 PM | Updated: Aug 26, 2021, 9:46 pm
A portable air cleaner runs in the home of 74-year-old Vinette Rupp on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in ...

A portable air cleaner runs in the home of 74-year-old Vinette Rupp on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Missoula, Montana. Rupp received the air cleaner from Climate Smart Missoula, a small non-profit group founded to bring attention to global warming. Rupp uses the cleaner to improve the quality of her indoor air, especially when there is smoke from wildfires. (AP Photo/Padmananda Rama)

(AP Photo/Padmananda Rama)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Huge gaps between air quality sensors in the western U.S. have created blind spots in the warning system for wildfire smoke plumes sweeping North America this summer, amid growing concern over potential health impacts to millions of people exposed to the pollution.

Government programs to alert the public when smoke pollution becomes unhealthy rely on about 950 permanent monitoring stations and dozens of mobile units that can be deployed around major fires.

Those stations are heavily concentrated around major cities on the West Coast and east of the Mississippi River — a patchwork that leaves some people unable to determine local risks from smoke, including in rural areas where air quality can quickly degrade when fires ignite nearby. The problem persists far beyond fire lines because wildfire smoke travels for thousands of miles and loses its tell-tale odor yet remains a danger to public health.

The monitoring gaps underscore what officials and public health experts say is a glaring shortage of resources for a type of pollution growing worse as climate change brings increasingly long and destructive wildfire seasons to the U.S. West, southern Europe and eastern Russia.

Microscopic particles in wildfire smoke can cause breathing issues and more serious problems for people with chronic health conditions. Long-term effects remain under study but some researchers estimate chronic smoke exposure causes about 20,000 premature deaths a year in the U.S.

“It’s a very frustrating place to be where we have recurring health emergencies without sufficient means of responding to them,” said Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist for Missoula, Montana. “You can be in your office just breathing smoke and thinking you’re OK because you’re inside, but you’re not.”

Missoula, perched along the Clark Fork River with about 75,000 people, is surrounded by mountains and has become notorious as a smoke trap. All across the region are similar mountain valleys, many without pollution monitors, and smoke conditions can vary greatly from one valley to the next.

Montana has 19 permanent monitoring stations. That’s about one for every 7,700 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) or an area almost as big as New Jersey. New Jersey has 30.

Data on air quality is particularly sparse in eastern Montana, where smoke from a 266-square-mile (690-square-kilometer) fire on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation got so bad this month that officials closed a health clinic when air filters couldn’t keep up with the pollution.

The smoke prompted tribal authorities to shield elders and others who were at risk by extending an evacuation order for Lame Deer, a town of about 2,000 people that sits beneath fire-scarred Badger Peak and is home to the tribal government complex.

But on the same day, Lame Deer and surrounding areas were left out of a pollution alert from state officials, who said extremely high smoke particle levels made the air unhealthy across large areas of Montana and advised people to avoid prolonged exertion to protect their lungs. A pollution sensor on the reservation had burned in the fire, and the nearest state Department of Environmental Quality monitor, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away, showed an air quality reading of “good.”

That left tribal officials to judge the pollution hazard based on how far they could see — a crude fallback for areas without monitors. On a scale of one to 20, “I would say the smoke was a 19,” tribal spokesperson Angel Becker said.

“What makes it difficult is that Lame Deer is sitting in between a couple of ravines,” she added. “So when you get socked in (with smoke), it just sits here and that’s not good for elders or kids that have asthma or any breathing issues.”

Doug Kuenzli, who supervises Montana’s air quality monitoring program, said regulators recognize the need for more data on smoke but high-grade monitors can be prohibitively expensive — $10,000 to $28,000 each.

Oregon expanded its network over the past two years with five new monitors along the state’s picturesque coastline where smoke only recently became a recurring problem, said Tom Roick with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

“We’re seeing more prevalence of wildfire smoke and increased intensity,” Roick said. “It’s not because we have more monitoring; it’s getting worse.”

Throughout the West, public health officials have struggled to get the message about dangers of smoke to at-risk communities, such as migrant workers who spend lots of time outdoors, people in houses without air filters and the elderly. Children, too, are more at risk of health problems.

That’s no small subset of society: People over 65 and children under 18 make up about 40% of the U.S. population, said Kaitlyn Kelly, a wildfire smoke pollution specialist with the Washington Department of Health.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced $7 million in spending on research to come up with better strategies and tools to detect and lessen exposure to wildfire smoke. Recipients included Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, which will look at how to communicate with low-income, hard-to-reach communities to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke.

The number of unhealthy air quality days recorded in 2021 by pollution monitors nationwide is more than 10 times the number to date in each of the last two years, according to the EPA. Wildfires likely are driving much of the increase, officials said.

Rapid technological advancements mean households can buy their own monitoring equipment for around $250. The equipment is not as reliable as government stations, officials said, but the data from many of the privately owned sensors is now displayed on an interactive smoke exposure map by the Environmental Protection Agency and Forest Service.

Although inaccurate readings have been reported for some consumer-grade sensors, officials said they can help fill blind spots in the government’s network. The number in use is fast increasing — from about 6,000 private sensors last year to more than 10,000 currently, according to EPA.

“There’s still gaps,” Kelly said. “The low-cost sensors are the first step in filling in the gaps where we don’t have (government) monitors.”

In Missoula, a small non-profit group founded to bring attention to global warming is going beyond warning people about smoke. It’s providing makeshift air filters and portable air cleaners to the homebound elderly and impoverished households.

Vinette Rupp, a 74-year-old Missoula woman who received a portable air cleaner, said she “can almost taste it” when the smoke gets thick in town. Neighbor Maureen Fogarty, 67, who has lung cancer and suffers from breathing problems, said her coughing has eased since she got one of the filters.

“Well it’s a lifesaver because I can breathe easier now,” Fogarty said. “The way it is, you know, you’ve got to come and go and you’re bringing in the unhealthy air, and it’s gonna affect you.”

Climate Smart Missoula, which provided the portable air cleaner, also makes and distributes filters through a local food bank. Costing about $30 apiece — versus $150 or more for a manufactured unit — the do-it-yourself purifiers are endorsed by public health officials. They’re crafted from box fans with high-efficiency furnace filters duct-taped to the back to trap pollution particles as air passes through.

Climate Smart Missoula Director Amy Cilimburg said she and a colleague have built roughly 200 of them, paid for largely with donations.

“Our strategies for dealing with wildfire smoke were pray for rain, or leave town, or suffer — and that seemed inadequate,” Cilimburg said “It’s kind of caught up with us, even though scientists have told us it’s coming. I felt like we needed to get to work.”


Rama reported from Missoula. Associated Press writer Drew Costley contributed to this story from Fairfax, Virginia.


Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Today in History: July 2, Amelia Earhart disappears

Today in History Today is Saturday, July 2, the 183rd day of 2022. There are 182 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On July 2, 1937, aviator Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to make the first round-the-world flight along the equator. On this date: […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Baby’s father charged in slaying of stroller-pushing NYC mom

NEW YORK (AP) — The ex-boyfriend of a New York City woman shot dead Wednesday as she pushed their infant daughter in a stroller has been arrested and charged with killing her, police said Friday. Slain mother Azsia Johnson’s family identified suspect Isaac Argro as the baby’s father and said he routinely abused Johnson, beating […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Judge: Sheriff must post bail after anti-harassment order

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — The sheriff of Pierce County, Washington, was ordered to post $100,000 bail while he awaits trial on false-reporting charges related to his controversial confrontation last year with a Black newspaper carrier. Judge Jeffrey Jahns on Friday imposed the bail — 10 times the amount requested by prosecutors — during a hearing […]
22 hours ago
FILE - Lights illuminate a coal mine at twilight, Jan. 13, 2022, in Kemmerer, Wyo. With the nearby ...
Associated Press

Court leaves dwindling paths for Biden’s climate mission

WASHINGTON (AP) — More than 500 days into his presidency, Joe Biden’s hope for saving the Earth from the most devastating effects of climate change may not quite be dead. But it’s not far from it. A Supreme Court ruling Thursday not only limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate climate pollution by power […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Sheriff: People getting out of Texas trailer were work crew

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A group of people who were spotted getting in and out of a parked semitrailer in San Antonio were part of a work crew, not a human-smuggling operation, authorities said Friday. Authorities checked the vehicle after someone alerted a deputy constable to it, just days after 53 migrants died when they […]
22 hours ago
Lauren Wright, a Navy spouse whose family was sickened by jet fuel in their tap water, shows her su...
Associated Press

Distrust remains after Navy report on tainted Hawaii water

HONOLULU (AP) — Lauren Wright continues to be leery of the water coming out of the taps in her family’s U.S. Navy home in Hawaii, saying she doesn’t trust that it’s safe. Wright, her sailor husband and their three children ages 8 to 17 were among the thousands of people who were sickened late last […]
22 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Gaps in US wildfire smoke warning network leave many exposed