Missoula Inversions Trap Smoke, Hamper Air-Based Fire Fighting Efforts
Missoula is famous for strong inversions that trap air pollution in the area and the firefighters up on the Lolo Peak fire are getting a taste of the low-visibility conditions, which have been so bad this week that they have grounded helicopters at times. Fire information officer Mike Cole explains.
"If the smoke is laying right over our fire in the morning and we go up to see where the fire burned through over night, we can't get in there on certain sides of it, because there's just too much smoke," Cole said."You have no visibility to look down and see where it is on the map, and if it is really heavy smoke, we can't fly helicopters because we can't see our targets to drop water."
Cole says that inversions can be a benefit to fighting fires, but only if ground crews are involved.
"If we had this fire where we actually had firefighters on the ground, where it is easier to get at, [the inversion] would keep that fire laying down and not as active, like when there's a smoke inversion, especially a smoke inversion with cloud cover over the top," Cole said. "Once that inversion breaks, later in the morning or early in the afternoon, the sun can get on it and that's when fire activity really picks up."
Rugged, rural terrain has made ground firefighting difficult for most of the larger fires around the Missoula area. Cole says smoke from other fires has also poured into the area adding to visibility problems.