If it's smoky, use common sense
Yes, the smoky air is bad for you. Yes, it likely will be around for a while.
Shannon Therriault, an air quality specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department, fielded call after call Tuesday from people worried about whether they - or their children or athletes - should go out-of-doors.
Here is what she said: "We advise people, especially those with allergies or respiratory illnesses, not to exert themselves outside when it's smoky out. But the smoke is changing. It changes several times a day. So people need to have common sense and look outside and make a decision. If it's smoky and they are affected by the smoke - whether they are diagnosed with problems or not - then they shouldn't exert themselves outside. But they've got to make a judgment moment by moment."
On Tuesday, Missoula began the morning with hazy skies and ash-topped cars - "not so bad, but still marginal," Therriault said. By lunch time, air quality took a turn for the worse, hitting a one-hour average of 128 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the limit considered unhealthy. Then came the afternoon winds and the air cleared, back to marginal.
Therriault cautioned, though, that some areas of the Missoula Valley tend to have thicker smoke than others, particularly the south side of the valley, nearest the Bitterroot fires.
And, she said, each person has to make their own decision about how much time to spend outside when it's smoky. "People respond at different levels," she said. "It has to be an individual call. By the time we reach an alert, asthmatics and people with allergies have to be more cautious. If we get to a warning again, we strongly encourage people to decrease their activity and stay inside."
Coaches from Missoula high schools were among Therriault's callers on Tuesday. Fall sports practice begins on Monday, with two-a-day drills. But Therriault couldn't give them much advice, since next week's air quality is completely unpredictable.
"Every day these days seems to bring something different," she said, "all the way around."
She does, however, provide twice-daily updates on Missoula County's air-quality hotline, 728-AIRE.
Sherry Devlin, Missoulian
Caution urged with propane tanks
Do not try to shut off a propane tank that is releasing propane, experts warn.
When the pressure has been relieved, the propane will stop and any fire that may have ignited will go out, propane managers say.
The managers met Monday and Tuesday in an effort to counter misinformation that arose recently about dealing with propane tanks in fire situations. Many homes with propane tanks have burned in fires in the Bitterroot Valley.
Darl Staat, manager of V-1 Propane in Victor, told propane owners to ignore misinformation that says you should try to put the fire out. If it is burning, let it burn, he said. If you have to evacuate, turn the tank off.
The proper procedure would be to cool the tank but not to put the tank fire out. Or leave the area, he said. The tank is doing what it was designed to do.
Looters haven't been a problem
At least one negative attributed to the fires has so far proven untrue. Despite rumors to the contrary, Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson said looters are not running rampant.
"We're not taking any reports of looting," Johnson said. "We are aware of the potential for that, but it's not being reported to us."
The department did have one burglary reported in an area where officials had talked with residents about potential fire danger, but Johnson didn't attach any significance to that incident.
"It's just a burglary, but it doesn't have anything to do with the fires," he said.
Johnson said neighbors are looking out for one another in areas where some homes have been evacuated.
"People know when things aren't where they're supposed to be," he said.
Michael Moore, Missoulian
Where to call for information
- To find out about current air quality, call the air quality hot line: 728-2473.
- To find out about current road closures and information call: 728-8553 or 1-800-226-7623.
- To find out about current fires go online to www.fs.fed.us/r1/fire.
- For Bitterroot Valley fire information, call 363-7101 or 363-7102
- For evacuation information, call 375-6286.
Missed newspapers: With road closures and evacuations in the Bitterroot Valley, Missoulian newspaper carriers may not be able to deliver in some areas. Missoulian subscribers who do not receive their morning paper can stop by the Ravalli Republic office at 232 W. Main St. in Hamilton to pick up a paper, or you can call the Missoulian at 1-800-332-2870 to make arrangements.
Wildfires in the West
Arizona: Thunderstorms on Monday pushed flames outside the southwestern containment lines of the Peak fire, near Globe. The fire has grown to 1,650 acres.
California: The state's biggest blaze grew to 73,860 acres in Sequoia National Forest but was 90 percent contained. The 12,476-acre Pechanga Indian reservation fire 45 miles north of San Diego was 85 percent surrounded. The King fire in Kern County has spread to 2,856 acres and is 80 percent contained.
Colorado: Three major fires burned, the largest on 5,000 acres in Mesa Verde National Park. A 550-acre fire burning on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation forced the evacuation of two families and threatened about a dozen other homes.
Idaho: Ten major fires covered 200,000 acres including the nation's largest, the Clear Creek fire at 106,000 acres. President Clinton went to Burgdorf at midday to meet with firefighters working the 25,000-acre Burgdorf Junction fire.
Nevada: A 900-acre blaze west of Las Vegas was 50 percent contained Tuesday. The 37,000-acre O'Neil Basin complex southwest of Jackpot was 40 percent contained. Three new fires near Winnemucca burned about 2,200 acres.
New Mexico: One lightning-started fire of 600 acres burning in Jemez Mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest, 35 percent contained.
Oregon: Five fires continued to burn out of control on nearly 16,000 acres, with lightning storms forecast. No homes or other buildings have burned.
Utah: Two of the state's worst fires, including a 59,528-acre blaze in the Fishlake National Forest, were contained Monday. But six large wildfires were still burning on about 60,000 acres.
Washington: The 3,500-acre Buffalo Lake grass fire on the Colville Indian reservation was one of two wildfires in Washington state. The other was a 240-acre blaze in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in the Wenatchee National Forest.
Wyoming: The 3,360-acre Boulder Fire 15 miles east of Jackson was 5 percent contained and continued to threaten 24 cabins, three homes and a campground.