An unforeseeable, unbreathable future

A look at air quality around Sweet Grass County and what’s next

Deep Purple might have written ‘Smoke on the Water’ in 1972, but Montana wildfires are collectively working on a sequel labeled ‘Smoke in the Air,’ 45 years later.

The Crazy Mountains have disappeared and hot summer winds are as much to blame for the lack of visual aesthetics in Big Timber as the fires. Air quality has flirted along the lines of moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups for most of August, while other parts of the state are deemed unhealthy and even potentially hazardous.

BY THE NUMBERS: Take a look at statistics on how air quality rated around Sweet Grass County in the month of August. 

Big Timber doesn’t have an air quality measuring shelter, but the one in Billings is an accurate enough read for Sweet Grass County locals to understand what’s going on in the air around them. 

Kristen Martin, an air quality meteorologist for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said using visual guidelines, along with the website, can help gauge how to plan late-summer activities. 

“We do have visibility guidelines that can help gauge air quality. So, mountain ranges and things like that.” Martin said.

When conditions are unhealthy, “People with heart or lung disease, older adults, children and people of lower SES should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion; everyone else should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion,” accruing to the DEQ’s website.

Cities across Montana have air quality stations that filter air through equipment in monitoring shelters. Intake filter on top of the shelters take in particles larger than Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) and are analyzed inside, helping determine the amount of harmful particles in the air.

How experts measure air quality

Fine particulate matter is the main concern when smoky plumes come floating through populated areas. Particles less than or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter can cause the most trouble. That’s the stuff that can get deep into lungs and start causing problems.

To give a better understanding of what 2.5 microns looks like, a human hair is 50-70 microns in diameter. Fine beach sand is usually around 90 microns in diameter and dust, pollen and mold measures to around less than 10 microns in diameter.

For more of this story, pick up a copy of this week’s Big Timber Pioneer on newsstands now, or subscribe online at

PHOTO CAPTION: Photo Illustration by Stephen Kalb-Koenigsfeld / Big Timber Pioneer




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