SANDPOINT — Air quality degraded Monday as wildfire smoke blanketed the region.
Sandpoint's air quality rating spiked at 403 Monday, according to Ralph Paul, airshed coordinator with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality's regional office in Coeur d'Alene. Anything over 300 is considered "hazardous." Following a conference call with National Weather Service officials Tuesday, Paul said the end of the week may bring some reprieve.
"There is supposed to be a cold front moving in sometime Thursday, probably Thursday night, and they think it will start improving then," Paul said.
In the meantime, as air quality remains in the "very unhealthy" range, students in the Lake Pend Oreille School District will be indoors this week. Superintendent Shawn Woodward said he notified the principals of all schools in the district Monday night to keep the students inside. Some of the schools, he said, hold a morning recess as kids get off of the buses, but went straight into the schools on Tuesday. From there, the district followed the typical protocol for extremely wet or extremely cold weather, he said.
"When I was visiting today it was interesting talking to the kids about how they felt about being indoors on the first day of school, which is typically really sunny," Woodward said. "I don't think we've ever had a rainy day recess on the first day of school."
Woodward said the indoor protocol will continue as long as the air quality is deemed unhealthy for physical activity.
"If the health department tells us that it's unhealthy to be physically active outside, then we will stay inside, because it is physically impossible for a kid not to be physically active if you let them loose on a playground," Woodward said.
Athletic practices and activities for Sandpoint High School will also be limited. In an email Tuesday, Kris Knowles, assistant principal for student activities and athletics at SHS, shared a chart of activity guidelines for wildfire smoke events provided by the Idaho High School Activities Association.
"Any time we are reading 151 or higher, we will move practices inside and cancel contests to be played outside," Knowles said.
"If we are below 151, and any parent feels they do not want to have their student athlete outside, we will make sure to respect that decision."
The smoke is reportedly coming into the area from wildfires burning in Montana, Washington and Canada.
On Tuesday, the air quality was "very unhealthy," averaging an AQI of about 250. IDEQ issued a "Stage 1" forecast and caution for Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai, Shoshone and Benewah counties for Wednesday as well. The greater Sandpoint area is expected to remain "very unhealthy" throughout the day with an AQI rating of 223.
The Panhandle Health District warns that older adults, pregnant women, children and those with pre-existing respiratory issues or heart disease are often more affected by the smoky conditions.
The smoke from wildfires is a mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons, other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides and trace minerals, according to a statement Tuesday by the American Lung Association.
"Even those without lung disease are at risk during this time," said Heather Kimmel, executive director of the American Lung Association in Idaho. "With the rising smoke levels, there is an increased risk of dangerous health effects ranging from respiratory tract irritation to more serious illness, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, worsening of asthma, and premature death. This is especially concerning for older adults and outdoor workers. Special care should be given to children as they are most susceptible to smoke because their lungs are still developing."
Residents are advised to:
• Avoid heavy work or exercise outdoors.
• Set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate. For homes without a central heating and/or cooling system, use portable air purifiers to remove particles.
• Limit time outdoors, especially if you have respiratory conditions or heart disease.
• Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated helps dilute phlegm in the respiratory tract, making it easier to cough out smoke particles.
• Seek medical treatment for uncontrolled coughing, wheezing, choking, or difficulty breathing once you move back indoors.
• Stay up-to-date on air quality in your community. View near real-time air quality monitoring by visiting www.deq.idaho.gov/air-quality/monitoring/daily-reports-and-forecasts.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.