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Montana's skies clearer this fire season, but experts worry about smoky air

Smoke and haze
Posted at 5:34 PM, Aug 15, 2022

BILLINGS — This time last year, skies were hazy and filled with ash and smoke, but that is not the case this year.

"It's a significantly better year than last year," said Brandon McGuire, air quality modeler for Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

"Fire season last year started with a bang and never let up," he added.

Several major fires started burning in June 2021, including the Robertson Draw fire, which started just outside Red lodge on June 13, ultimately burning about 30,000acres. Nationwide, more than 5.5 million acres of land had burned across the U.S. by September, making air quality a huge concern.

"Definitely over half of the days above the good category, which would be in the moderate or worse," stated McGuire.

DEQ closely monitors air quality in Montana. There are 20 sensors laid out across the state, keeping an eye on what we can't really see.

There is one station over in Lockwood.

"The ones we are talking about monitor PM2.5, which is particulate matter. It captures all the smoke essentially," said McGuire.

While this year, the air quality across the country is much better than one year ago, McGuire says, but "we're trending in the wrong direction." A hotter and drier climate has resulted in more fires and smokier skies across Montana and the west more years than not.

"From what we see, it goes up and down every year, the variability. But overall there is generally an uptick in smoke production and smoke impacts," stated McGuire.