Lewis and Clark Public Health has issued more than 60 violation notices for burning amid poor air quality since the beginning of 2017.
Wood burning due to cold winter temperatures, coupled with a long-lasting temperature inversion trapping pollution near the valley floor, resulted in “poor” air quality ratings for 14 of the 25 days this month.
The county takes precautions during winter, including alerting residents to pollution levels and restricting wood burning. The county uses a three-level system to regulate burning, with “good” having no restrictions, “watch” asking for voluntary restrictions and “poor” forbidding residents from using non-EPA certified stoves.
“If you can see a plume of smoke coming out of your chimney, you’re probably violating the law,” said Jay Plant, an environmental health specialist with the health department. “It’s really best if you just don’t burn at all on poor air-quality days.”
Burning wood amid poor air quality violates a county ordinance enforced by the health department. Pellet stoves and EPA-certified burning devices that produce less pollution are exempt.
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County officials patrol an area that includes Helena, East Helena, the Helena Valley and Birdseye whenever air quality is poor, including on weekends. They look for chimneys spewing smoke and send violation notices. Second and subsequent violations may result in fines of $100 to $500.
Only one of the more than 60 violations this year resulted in a fine, said Gayle Shirley, communications manager with the county.
Exposure to fine particulates from smoke and other sources can cause health problems affecting both the heart and lungs. The particulates can get into the bloodstream, aggravate asthma or cause irregular heartbeat with potential increase in risk for those suffering from heart or lung disease, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
During poor ratings the county says sensitive individuals, such as children, the elderly, and those with aggravated heart or lung disease and cardiopulmonary disease, may experience an increased likelihood of respiratory symptoms. Active children and adults and people with respiratory disease such as asthma should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion, and everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
Air quality updates are available at helenaair.org, or by calling 447-1644.