HAMILTON - Ravalli County schools are taking precautions to protect students from the persistent heavy layer of smoke hanging in the Bitterroot Valley.
On Thursday afternoon, Corvallis announced it will move its Friday night home football game with Libby to Ronan to escape the haze.
Darby is considering pushing its Saturday homecoming game with Victor back several hours if it appears that the air will be better later in the day.
And a number of schools have kept their students inside for recess or shortened their outdoor fun after local air monitors showed particulate levels had moved into unhealthy levels.
With numerous wildfires nearly ringing the Bitterroot Valley that are being coaxed on by a stubborn high-pressure system that has brought unseasonably warm temperatures and low humidity levels, local health officials are urging residents to be aware of the air they breathe.
Thursday evening's air quality was rated unhealthy, which means all people should avoid exertion outdoors.
While air quality levels have not reached levels seen during the fires of 2000, Ravalli County Environmental Health Specialist Lea Gutherie said the U.S. Forest Service indicates air quality will likely get worse over the next few days.
"We're getting some nighttime inversions that are trapping a lot of smoke in the valley early in the day," she said. "It doesn't appear that we are going to get any relief for the next week or so."
The county and its schools are better prepared to deal with smoke in the valley than they were a decade ago, Gutherie said.
The county created packets of information for all county schools that help administrators decide on actions needed to protect students when air quality is affected by wildfire smoke.
Ravalli County has an air quality hot line at 375-6577 that offers residents a regularly updated report of observations of air quality in downtown Hamilton. Real-time air quality can also be viewed at todaysair.mt.gov.
Corvallis Superintendent Monte Silk said the decision to move the Friday night game away from Corvallis wasn't taken lightly.
"It's a real big decision for us," Silk said. "We'll lose gate receipts and our fans will now have to travel. We can't know for sure what it's going to look like tomorrow night, but we decided it was better to be safe than sorry."
Schools are not allowed to reschedule football games that are cancelled for any reason.
"We wanted to be able to play our game, even if it meant moving," Silk said.
All Corvallis students were spending more time indoors this week.
"When air quality is nearing the red zone, we don't allow any team sports outdoors during recess," Silk said. "We allow them to take a short break and then bring them back inside."
Hamilton Superintendent Duby Santee said students were kept inside from recess on Thursday due to the smoke.
"We err on the side of caution," Santee said. "If there is any doubt in our minds, kids don't have to go outside."
Santee said there is a high-school soccer game scheduled for Friday.
"If the smoke situation is like it is today, we probably won't host that game," he said.
In Darby, Superintendent Lloyd Rennaker is carefully following the weather patterns to see if the smoke appears to clear some later in the day.
As of Thursday night, Darby is scheduled to host Victor at noon Saturday for its homecoming football game.
"We've noticed the worst conditions appeared to be right around noon," Rennaker said. "We may move the game back later in the day. It seems that by 6 p.m., air quality was back in the moderate range."
Meanwhile, the 4,558-acre Up Top fire continued to burn actively on both sides of the Skalkaho Highway on Thursday. On Wednesday, it was spotting as much as a half mile ahead of the fire.
A Type 1 incident command team took over management of the complex of fires Thursday morning. Currently, there are 154 people assigned to the team.
The Forest Service will host a community open house Saturday on the 41 Complex fires at Hamilton City Hall from 9 a.m. to noon. The agency will also have its fire trailer at the Hamilton Farmers Market that same day.
Forest Service spokesperson Dixie Dies said there was a little more of a breeze at the fire camp just off the Skalkaho Highway late Thursday afternoon.
"The good thing is we're not getting a lot of wind on this fire right now," Dies said. "The bad thing is we're not getting any wind to move this smoke out of here. It's a double-edged sword."
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at email@example.com.