It’s kind of hard to keep an eye on Boise this morning, because the city is fading into invisibility under a thick layer of lung-burning, eye-stinging smoke. With forest fires burning all around, huge quantities of choking smoke are hanging over Boise, obscuring the skyline and the surrounding hills. “We’ve had elevated levels for a month and a half now – just how bad it gets varies,” said Leonard Herr, airshed manager for the state DEQ’s Boise regional office. “Today it looks about as bad as I’ve ever seen it.”
But as of late morning, Boise was still under a yellow air quality alert – not the red flag warning for unhealthy. That’s because there was some “lifting” in the air currents that was lifting the smoke a few hundred feet above the valley floor, allowing people to breathe underneath. That could change at any time, depending on the weather, Herr said. He’s already heard from Mountain Home, to the south, that “they’re just getting obliterated by smoke.”
The red flag warning means unhealthy air. Boise had one of those about a month ago, but that wasn’t due to wildfires – it was for ozone, which is smog created by auto pollution, hot, still air, and other factors.
Boise’s had a bad year this year for air quality, with one of the worst ozone seasons ever, and now a heavy smoke impact from the wildfire season. With the sheer number of fires burning, it could continue for up to another month, Herr said, “until we get some season-ending events, rain.” For now, bans on open burning are in effect throughout the valley, people are being asked to limit driving, and people with respiratory problems will want to watch out for worsening conditions – whether or not the DEQ’s monitors have hit readings that trigger a red-flag alert, because local conditions vary. “If the visibility is down to less than about a mile, that’s considered unhealthy air,” Herr said. When that happens, he said, “If you’ve got problems, you should probably leave.”