BILLINGS — Smoky skies stretch into another week in central and eastern Montana as massive wildfires burn across Alberta, spreading smoke across the Lower 48.
Air quality has improved across Montana as a whole and Monday afternoon was listed as "Moderate" in Billings and "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups" in Malta, Sidney, Miles City and Broadus, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
RiverStone Health in Billings says with any amount of smoke in the air, people need to be cautious about smoke exposure.
“I would recommend people use the guidelines that are on the Montana DEQ's site, for basing decisions on having activities such as track meets, softball games, and things like that," said Clark Snyder, program manager of the environmental health services department at RiverStone Health.
If you're noticing a cough, sore throat, or runny nose, you're not alone. Wildfire smoke can be irritating, especially for kids. In the DEQ's air quality advisories, "sensitive groups" includes children.
Keeping kids safe during changing weather and periods of smoky air pollution is a top priority for the Montana Audobon Center, an outdoor-based learning center that teaches kids from pre-school to high school.
"We always check weather, and smoke is a part of weather," says Emily Chilcoat, director of the Montana Audobon Center.
Chilcoat says kids in their preschool, summer camps, and other groups spend about 80% of their time outside. When air quality drops, creativity helps the outdoor-based learning center keep kids engaged.
“You might not want to send them out running around the playground and causing a lot of exertion, but you can still send them out for bits of time," Chilcoat said. "It’s not that you have to totally block yourself from being outside—again depending on any health-related matters. ”
Included in the Montana Audobon Center's handbook are activity guides from the DEQ for schools and beyond.
The Activity Guide for Particle Pollution includes activity examples and exposure time for groups of all ages and sensitivities, with descriptions, while the Outdoor Activity Guidance for Schools is tailored for schools and childcare facilities.
For "Moderate" air quality, there are limitations for recess and other activities 15-30 minutes in duration. For one hour of activity, such as a physical education class, the recommendation is to monitor sensitive groups and limit their vigorous activities, which is the same recommendation for athletic events and practices two to four hours long.
For Chilcoat, lingering smoke can be frustrating but also present a unique educational opportunity.
"Unfortunately Montana is just getting smokier and smokier," Chilcoat said. "While yes it can be hazardous, especially if you already have illnesses or health-related problems, it’s also a great learning resource of, why is it smoky right now? What is causing the smoke?”
The DEQ provides continuously updated information on air quality and guidelines at todaysair.mtdeq.us