Many People Left Exposed To Wildfire Smoke Due To Gaps In Reporting

Nikki Attkisson | Last Updated : August 28, 2021

In the Western US, huge gaps between air quality sensors have created blind spots within the warning system for wildfire smoke sweeping North America this summer, causing growing concern over the potential health impacts to millions of people exposed to the pollution.

Around 950 permanent monitoring stations and lots of mobile units which will be sent out to combat major fires are relied on by government programs that tell people when the general level of smoke pollution is unhealthy.

Many People Left Exposed To Wildfire Smoke Due To Gaps In Reporting

Around major cities on the West Coast and east of the Mississippi, these stations are found in dense concentration. This is a patchwork that leaves some people without the ability to determine local risks of smoke. This includes rural areas where the quality of the air can degrade quickly when there are fires ignited nearby.

Many People Left Exposed To Wildfire Smoke Due To Gaps In Reporting

Due to the reason that wildfire smoke travels for more than a thousand miles and remains a danger to public health even though it loses its tell-tale odor, the problem persists far beyond fire lines.

The monitoring gaps emphasize what officials and public health experts say may be a glaring shortage of resources for a kind of pollution that’s becoming worse as climate change brings increasingly harsh and destructive wildfire seasons to the U.S. West, southern Europe, and eastern Russia.

In wildfire smoke, microscopic particles can cause breathing issues to exist. These can cause more serious problems for those with chronic health conditions.

The effects of these particles over the long term are still under study, but it has been estimated by some researchers that chronic smoke exposure is the cause of over 20,000 premature deaths a year in the US.

An air quality specialist in the city of Missoula, Montana, said that it is a very frustrating place to be where they have health emergencies that are recurring without sufficient means of responding to them.

She added that one could be in their office breathing smoke in and thinking that they are okay, but in reality, they are not.

Gaining a name for being a smoke trap that is perched along the Clark Fork River with around 75,000 people is Missoula which happens to be surrounded by mountains.

There are similar mountain valleys all across this region. Multiple regions do not have pollution monitors, and smoke conditions can differ to a great extent from one valley to the next.

There are 19 permanent monitoring stations in Montana. This comprises only one ever 20,000 square kilometers or 7,700 square miles. This is the equivalent of an area as big as New Jersey.

In contrast, New Jersey has 30 stations.

Data on air quality is limited especially in eastern Montana, where smoke from a 266-square-mile (690-square-kilometer) fire on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation got so horrible this month that officials shut down a health clinic when air filters could not handle the pollution.

The tribal authorities were prompted by the smoke to protect elders and others at risk by ordering an evacuation from Lame Deer. This is a town with about 2000 people. It sits beneath Badger Peak which has been scarred by fire and it also houses the tribal government complex.

But on the very same day, Lame Deer and the areas around it were not included in a pollution alert given by state officials, who said that extremely high smoke particle levels across huge areas of Montana made the air unhealthy and asked people to avoid long exposure to protect their lungs.

A pollution sensor on the reservation had burned down in the fire and around 30 miles away, reading good quality air was the nearest state Environmental Quality monitor.

Nikki Attkisson

With over 15 years as a practicing journalist, Nikki Attkisson found herself at Powdersville Post now after working at several other publications. She is an award-winning journalist with an entrepreneurial spirit and worked as a journalist covering technology, innovation, environmental issues, politics, health etc. Nikki Attkisson has also worked on product development, content strategy, and editorial management for numerous media companies. She began her career at local news stations and worked as a reporter in national newspapers.

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