BILLINGS - The Billings area recorded the poorest air quality in the country Tuesday, according to an index compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the agency's Air Quality Index, Billings' air quality was considered "very unhealthy" early Tuesday afternoon, the only area nationwide to receive that designation.
The EPA develops the index by measuring levels of pollutants in the air daily, then translating them into a value to measure air quality.The higher the number, the poorer the air quality, and Billings had a value of 210 as of 1 p.m., largely because of wildfire smoke moving down from Canada.
The good news: Air quality in Billings improved over the day, with the EPA upgrading its index to "unhealthy" for Billings air at 3 p.m.
The EPA recommends people sensitive to bad outside air, including those with heart and lung problems, seniors and children and teens, to avoid strenuous outdoor activity or reschedule outdoor events outdoors.
The Billings and Lockwood school districts have rescheduled outdoor sports practices because of the poor air quality. Both of the girls' and boys' soccer games between Billings Senior and Billings Skyview were postponed until Saturday.
With air quality cresting 200, ZooMontana took a rare move in allowing resident animals to go inside their enclosures to escape the smoke.
“It’s a precaution that we’re going to take no matter what. Obviously, animal health is our number one priority here," said Jeff Ewelt, executive director of ZooMontana.
Ewelt said birds especially are sensitive to the smoke, and on Tuesday the zoo's two bald eagles were laying low and taking shelter.
“They hunker down. They really do get lower to the ground," Ewelt said. “If you’re sitting in the zoo and you listen, you don’t here many birds chirping right now. That’s because everything is hiding away. ”
For zoo visitors on Tuesday, the smoke was noticeable.
“Definitely could smell smoke getting out of the car. It seems like a lot of the animals are not out," said Mai Le, who was visiting the ZooMontana from Los Angeles.
In general, fire seasons are getting longer—starting earlier and lasting later in the year.
Al Nash, a public information officer with the Bureau of Land Management based in Billings, is helping out operations at the largest wildfire burning the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
“I think the biggest change that I've seen over the course of my career is that the season is longer than it used to be. That even in areas where you typically had what we'd call a summer fire season can see that fire activity in some measure start earlier and later," Nash said. “We always in the Northern Rockies talked about a season-ending event and often that was not long after the Labor Day holiday weekend and that's just not the case anymore.”