Wildfire season began earlier than usual across the region this year, and with it came smoky skies. That's led to problems like unsafe air quality, and hundreds of delayed flights out of Denver on Monday. Now, meteorologists and air quality experts say hazy conditions will likely stick around until fall for many Mountain West communities.
"I don't see a way out of smoke this summer," said Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with Missoula City-County Health Department in Montana.
She said it's simple—wildfire season is expected to rage on through September thanks to hot and dry conditions. And where there's fire, there's smoke.
For communities that aren't right next to a fire, it won't necessarily be smoky every day. That's because wind can change course, and easily push smoke in different directions. Still, that smoke can travel very long distances, and some large fires control the atmosphere around them.
"The worst scenario is when you are in a valley with a fire on that valley's hillside, because those folks will see smoke every single day until the fire is out," said Coefield.
And firefighting resources are stretched thin, so Coefield said some fires—especially those that are lower priority, or in a stretch of the wilderness that's largely inaccessible—could burn until the snow flies in October.
With hazy conditions persisting for the next couple of months, Coefield said it's important to know that wildfire smoke does end up indoors.
"The old public health advice of just, 'Go inside, close your doors and windows,' that isn't really the go-to anymore, especially now that we have these long-duration smoke events," she said. And since many homes in the Mountain West lack air conditioning, Coefield said opening windows may be necessary to combat the extreme heat gripping the region.
"If you don't have air conditioning, the heat will usually kill you faster," she said.
To stay safe, Coefield recommended using an air purifier with a true HEPA filter to clean the air inside your home. Or, for those with a forced air system, upgrading the filter to one with a MERV rating of at least 11.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.