The Internet can solve, and cause a lot of problems, but it might not seem like the obvious tool to help researchers understand why Seeley Lake can have such a problem with wildfire smoke.

However, a University of Montana graduate student has been spending time during the spring semester on the digital hunt for strong internet connections to provide clues that will help air quality experts improve their work.

In recent years, Seeley Lake has been a problem spot for air quality during fire season. The community is frequently hit with air quality alerts. But the problem was especially acute during the 2017 fire season when much of Missoula County and the surrounding area was on fire.

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The situation wasn't helped by the proximity of the massive Rice Ridge Fire, which burned over 100,000 acres and filled the valley with smoke for weeks. Some of the highest smoke levels ever recorded in the United States happened during that summer.

The improved monitoring could help

UM student Kristen Cram's fieldwork for her Master's Degree, mapping out available connection locations, is going to help the Missoula City-County Health Department place additional air quality monitors, known as PurpleAirs, at Seeley Lake homes and businesses. The units can monitor air quality and then send that information directly to Missoula for analysis. There are also SD cards for backup, so none of the data is lost.

Cram, along with air quality specialist Ben Schmidt, were able to find signals which had never been located before.

Kristen Cram; University of Montana photo
Kristen Cram; University of Montana photo

“We can’t figure out why it worked this time, but we are happy it did! This gave us a green light to reach out to the other volunteers who are letting us install the sensors on their property.” -UM Graduate Student Kristen Cram

Cram's objective was to locate 5 to 15 homeowners or businesses willing to have the small PurpleAirs (which are white) installed at their locations. Those are then used to build a framework for a study that will continue over the next 2-years.

“She is learning the team-building aspects of projects like this and how to communicate concepts to the community,” said Schmidt. “And, if there are still problems, where is it and how do we fix it?”

Missoula County had launched an effort to change out wood stoves a decade ago, aiming to eliminate one source of the smoke. And the effort appears to be working. The monitoring station at Seeley Lake Elementary School continues to show a 50% improvement in smoke particles at that location.

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