This NOAA satellite image taken Wednesday at 1 a.m. EDT shows an area of low pressure with monsoonal flow over the central Rockies and southwestern United States with areas of showers and thunderstorms. High pressure is in control over the middle of the country with mostly fair weather. Smoke from recent wildfires is also visible in the Pacific Northwest and northern Idaho. 

No one’s promising blue skies, but the National Weather Service said Wednesday the soup of wood smoke socking in the Missoula Valley this week may lighten up Saturday.

“The general thought is that with a weather system that’s going to pass through the area to the north of us, we’ll see an increase in winds, a slightly better shot of showers or thundershowers, and it’ll cool things down,” said Travis Booth, a meteorologist at the Missoula bureau.

Whether it happens in time to help the players and 26,000 ticket-toting fans in Washington-Grizzly Stadium breathe easier is anyone’s guess. The Montana Grizzlies kick off the Bob Stitt era at 1:30 p.m. against four-time Football Championship Series champion North Dakota State.

The River City Roots Festival, scheduled to coincide with the return to town of University of Montana students, will also coincide with a Griz home game for the first time. Billed as “Missoula’s Signature Celebration of Our Community,” the festival runs Friday and Saturday.

Things figure to be especially hopping Saturday evening after the Griz-Bison game.

Smoke or not as much smoke, Roots Fest organizers are anticipating record attendance of 15,000 to 20,000 people.

“Here’s where we’re at: The show will go on,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “If the smoke is labeled really unhealthy then we would cancel the run and stand-up paddleboard races, but the Music on Main (Street), the juried art show, the Family Fun Festival (in Caras Park), and the food and beverage will continue.”

Regardless, tens of thousands of people will be flooding into a town that, while devoid of wildfires nearby, is surrounded by complexes of conflagrations within easy smoke range.

Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department, was keeping an eye Wednesday on the effects of a couple of burning near U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho, just over Lolo Pass.

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One of them, the Jay Point fire, is burning about 1 1/2 miles west of Powell and 18 miles west of the Montana line. It more than doubled in size on Tuesday to more than 2,000 acres and has shut down Powell-area campgrounds. A level 1 evacuation alert is in effect in the Powell area and the fire has the potential to threaten U.S. Highway 12.

Even closer, less than 40 miles southwest of the Missoula Valley and north of Highway 12, is the Boulder fire that’s been monitored but not fought since Aug. 14. It also blew up Tuesday and was measured at 1,600 acres by an infrared flyover that night.

Coefield said the Boulder fire was sending a troubling plume of smoke Missoula’s way Wednesday afternoon, and there’s no predicting such fire activity between now and Saturday.

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“If new fires show up, all bets are off,” she said.

Indeed, the same front that could clear the air in Missoula on Saturday may as easily whip new fire starts and introduce more layers of smoke to the equation.

August smoke has dampered outdoor events in Missoula. Already two high school football openers that Missoula Hellgate and Loyola Sacred Heart were set to host Friday night have been moved. 

The last time North Dakota State came to play the Grizzlies in UM’s 2003 football opener, its plane was diverted to Helena because of wildfire smoke. The Bison, then an NCAA Division II power, bused to Missoula and upset third-ranked Montana 25-24.

McCarthy said Missoula regularly holds outdoor brewfests downtown in February and May, and Out to Lunch and other events all summer long. Attendance at last year’s River City Roots Festival was hampered by cold and rain.

“The weather is what the weather is,” McCarthy said. “If we’re doing our jobs and covering our hard costs, we’ll be fine.”

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