Wildfires: Gaps in Smoke Warning Network Causing Major Problems as Blazes Rage Across U.S.

by Jennifer Shea
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There are major blind spots in the warning system for wildfire smoke plumes. And with millions of people now inhaling the pollution from Western wildfires, public health experts are concerned.

The government’s ability to alert the public to smoke pollution hinges on about 950 monitoring stations and dozens of mobile units across the country, the Associated Press reports. But those monitoring stations heavily favor the West and East coasts. They are clustered around the major cities on either coast.

That leaves much of the country unable to predict local smoke hazards, especially in rural areas where air quality can deteriorate quickly when fires start.

Montana, for example, has 19 permanent monitoring stations. That’s one per area the size of New Jersey. Meanwhile, New Jersey has 30 monitoring stations.

Coasts Beef Up Monitoring While Rural Areas Go Without

Wildfire smoke can travel for thousands of miles. And it remains dangerous even after it loses its distinctive smell.

Public health experts say the monitoring shortfall is growing more acute as climate change fuels longer, more severe wildfire seasons from North America’s West to southern Europe and eastern Russia.

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

Wildfire smoke contains microscopic particles that can cause breathing problems and worsen chronic health conditions. Some researchers claim chronic smoke exposure causes around 20,000 early deaths a year in the U.S.

Doug Kuenzli runs Montana’s air quality monitoring program. He told the AP officials to know they need more data on wildfire smoke, but high-grade monitors are prohibitively expensive, ranging from $10,000 to $28,000 each.

Over the past two years, Oregon has sprung for five more monitors. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Tom Roick told the AP that they’re seeing more smoke along the coastline.

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

Amid Wildfires, Unhealthy Air Quality Days Are On the Rise

The number of unhealthy air quality days in 2021 is more than 10 times the number at this point in each of the last two years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Officials believe the wildfires ravaging the West are driving that increase. Currently, 88 large wildfires are burning more than 2.4 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.  

Consumers who have about $250 to spare can buy their own consumer-grade air quality sensors. They are not as reliable as the government monitoring stations, but they can help compensate for the inequalities in the government’s network.

And in Missoula, Montana, the nonprofit Climate Smart Missoula is distributing homemade air purifiers to the homebound elderly. They’re made from box fans and have high-efficiency furnace filters duct-taped to their back to trap pollution particles as air passes through. They cost about $30 to make.

“Our strategies for dealing with wildfire smoke were praying for rain, or leave town, or suffer — and that seemed inadequate,” Director Amy 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.”

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