Winter is a beautiful time in the Helena Valley, but along with the winter season comes an increase in outdoor air pollution.  This is mostly due to the use of wood-burning devices.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local officials began receiving complaints about the high levels of wood smoke in the air, and doctors were seeing more patients with respiratory problems. In response to these complaints, Lewis and Clark County adopted the Clean Outdoor Air Ordinance to protect and improve the air quality in the Helena Valley.

Now, the County Health Department’s Environmental Division monitors the air quality in the Helena Valley year-round from a monitoring station located at Rossiter School in Helena.  The official regulatory air quality seasons runs from Nov. 1 through March 1. During this time, air quality is categorized as “good”, “watch” or “poor” air days, based on a 24-hour average particulate level and weather forecasts.  The county’s Clean Air Ordinance, which is in effect during this time, prohibits the use of any wood-burning device that are not EPA-Certified, or open burning on a “poor” air day.

“The easiest way know the air quality status is by calling the health department’s 24-hour hotline at 406-447-1644. On poor days, use an alternative heating source, stay inside as much as possible, and refrain from strenuous activities,” said Valerie Stacey, environmental health specialist for the Environmental Division at Lewis and Clark Public Health.

Particulate matter is composed of dust, soot, and other compounds. Small-sized particulates can enter the lungs when inhaled through the mouth and contribute to respiratory illness, Stacey noted. Children are particularly affected by poor air quality because they are more likely to breathe through their mouths, preventing the cilia in their noses to filter particulates.

A “poor” air day occurs when particulate levels rise above 60 micrograms per cubic meter, with little or no dispersion of stagnant air. A “watch” day occurs when particulate levels surpass 40 micrograms per cubic meter with moderate to poor dispersion of stagnant air.

“Because of the topography of the Helena Valley, we are more susceptible to air inversions.  When an inversion occurs, pollution is trapped close to the surface.  This means that what we put out is what we breathe in.  When inversions occur, we each need to take an active role in reducing the amount of pollution we are putting into the air,” Stacey said.  

To help citizens understand their role in keeping the air quality in good shape, Stacey recommended the following tips for proper burning in wood stoves:

• Use dry, well-seasoned, medium-sized wood;

• Start a fire with small, dry kindling to establish a hot flame;

• Do not put too many logs in the stove;

• Keep air intakes and dampers open enough to maintain a clean, hot fire;

• Clean your chimney regularly; and

• Call the health department’s 24-hour hotline at 406-447-1644 for air quality conditions.

When the air quality is classified as “poor”, the use of any wood-burning device is prohibited, unless it is an EPA-Certified stove.

Tickets are issued for violations unless an exemption has been granted by the health department. The only two reasons for an exemption are low income or a temporarily inoperable heating system.

To qualify for the low-income exemption, people must show proof of participation in one of the following programs: Low Income Energy Assistance Program, public assistance, or Supplemental Security Income.

To qualify for the inoperable heating system exemption, people must show proof from a licensed heating specialist that explains why their heating system isn’t working and the estimated length of time that it will be inoperable.

For more information about the Clean Air Ordinance, please call the health department’s Environmental Division at 406-457-8891.

For air quality conditions, call the hotline at 406-447-1644.