Montana is famous for its big, blue sky. But, lately, wildfires have taken a toll on our state’s reputation. It turns out that our sky isn’t always as clear and clean as we’d like it to be.
This year, four Montana counties earned an “F” on the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report. This study looks at average unhealthy days for particulate and ozone (smog) pollution in counties across the nation. A span of three years is reviewed when tabulating the results. This year, that span was 2010 to 2012, which included some smoky Montana summers, particularly 2012.
Counties receiving an “F” included Missoula, Ravalli, Lewis and Clark and Silver Bow.
These “unhealthy air days” truly are unhealthy – not just annoying. The increased small particulate pollution created by wildfires is a hazard to everyone’s lungs. And, for those with asthma, COPD, heart disease and other serious health conditions, this pollution can be life threatening. When the air is smoky, our hospitals see more children with asthma attacks, more seniors in respiratory distress and more people with heart attacks.
Living in the West, we all know that wildfires are a fact of life. But studies show that, due to climate change, our fire seasons are becoming longer and more severe. This makes it imperative that we take action to address the problem before it gets worse.
Here’s what the studies show: Since 1986, longer and warmer summers have led to a four-fold increase in major wildfires compared to the period from 1970 to 1986. In the western United States, the length of the active fire season has increased by 78 days, and the average burn duration of large fires has increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days.
We’ve seen these longer seasons in Montana, where fires and smoky skies can linger well into fall, leading to cancellations of high school football games and other outdoor activities at the start of each school year.
Research also shows that snow packs are now melting one to four weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago, with stream flows also peaking earlier.
In short, we have a scenario where temperatures quickly heat up in the summers, drying out our forests early in the season and making fire a greater likelihood when lightning or human carelessness strike.
And, as residents of failing State of the Air counties know, the fires don’t even need to be in Montana in order to pollute our air. Much of the smoke that filled our skies during 2012 came from fires in Idaho.
So, what can we do? First, we must understand that the impacts of climate change aren’t limited to coastal areas subject to rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes. They are happening here in Montana, too, resulting in more intense wildfires and drought – threatening public health, our outdoor recreation economy and agriculture.
We must hold decision makers and polluters accountable. Our elected officials must act, and industry must address causes of climate change, and we, as individuals, must work to reduce our own carbon footprint.
We must strongly support proposed federal limits on carbon emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants. Existing power plants are the single-largest source of carbon emission, creating 32 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gases. But, despite this threat, there are currently no limits on how much carbon plants can emit.
Placing limits on how much pollution these plants produce will help slow climate change and help reduce wildfires and other risks associated with warming temperatures. This is a first, hugely important, step our state and federal leaders can take in order to protect Montanans’ public health and quality of life.
Dr. Robert Merchant is a pulmonologist at Billings Clinic. Dr. Steve Running is the University Regents Professor of Ecology at the University of Montana in Missoula.