It’s early in fire season and so far, Northern Idaho has been lucky and fires have been kept relatively small. However, even the smallest of fires produce smoke which can drift toward populated areas.
Currently, fires in the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness are burning in Northern Idaho, but due to the predominantly eastern wind direction the smoke will have less impact to Northern Idaho. The smoke instead will drift hundreds of miles down the Bitterroot Valley and likely settle in western Montana. In turn, as wildfires in Oregon and Washington become more active Northern Idaho can expect to see and smell more smoke. Keep in mind that smoke can travel long distances and local air quality might be affected from fires a state away. Fire is historically prevalent in this area and locals have come to accept the smoky haze of summer.
When they can, fire managers work very hard at mitigating the smoke impact on residents near fires and areas where the smoke is drifting. Reducing the impact of smoke can be done easier with prescribed fires rather than wildfires. Prescribed fires are manager ignited fires. Prior to setting a prescribed fire, managers follow strict guidelines that outline the parameters in which they can ignite the fire, also known as the prescription or burn plan. In this prescription the smoke impacts are addressed. Some of the biggest considerations in writing a burn plan are the wind direction, air stability and inversions. These considerations all focus on smoke. Managers will attempt to burn on days that the wind will carry the smoke away from homes and populated areas, and on days where the smoke will lift high into the atmosphere and disperse (air stability) rather settle near the ground (inversions). In some years good burn days are few therefore there are many entities with plans to burn, which also can affect air quality. Due to this scenario, land management agencies, private landowners and the Department of Environmental Quality in Idaho and Montana have joined together to form the Montana/Idaho Airshed Group.
This group’s members are dedicated to the preservation of air quality in Montana and Idaho. Each year they collaborate and agree on terms relative to air quality. The group’s members communicate and relay plans to burn and where the smoke might drift. If the drifting smoke would impact an area were emission levels were high, the fire manager would receive that information and possibly decided to hold off on that prescribed burn. Fire season in 2012 was very long and smoky for residents in Northern Idaho and Montana. Due to the smoke impacts fire managers on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest collaborated and chose not to further impact Northern Idaho and Montana with more smoke by holding off on some burns that would have some impacts to communities. Together with the Montana/Idaho Airshed Group the Nez Perce – Clearwater National Forest is striving to minimize or prevent smoke impacts while using fire to accomplish land management objectives.