Warm, windy conditions over the weekend fanned wildfires that are burning in the Western, Central and even Eastern part of Montana, filling the air with smoke which left some Billings residents reaching for facial masks.

“Air quality in Yellowstone County has ranged from unhealthy for sensitive groups to very unhealthy over the past two weeks,” John Felton, Yellowstone County Health Officer, said in a prepared statement. “Because air quality can change rapidly depending on wind speed and direction, organizers involved with outdoor sporting events should pay close attention to changing conditions to make decisions about holding events.”

It wasn't just the putrid smell that triggered the onslaught of dust masks; for some, it is a genuine health concern. For those with respiratory problems such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis or a chronic heart disease, the American Lung Association urges you to monitor your breathing and exposure to airborne matter. If problems develop call your physician immediately.

Though residents were spotted in department stores, grocery stores, and restaurants wearing the dust masks, the American Lung Association cautions that they might be enough. It recommends the following:

  • Stay indoors: People living in close proximity to the fire-stricken areas should remain indoors and avoid inhalation of smoke, ashes and particulate matter in the area.
  • Don't count on a dust mask: Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help as they still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters will filter out the damaging fine particles, but are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your physician before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.
  • Don't exercise outside: If you live close to or in the surrounding area, it's recommended that you refrain from exercising outdoors, especially if you smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation.
  • Take precautions for kids: Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.
  • Roll up your car windows: When driving your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
  • Put air conditioners on recirculate: Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the re-circulation setting so outside air will not be moved into the room.
If you're having trouble breathing, consult your physician.