The Department of Environmental quality issued an air quality alert that encompassed most of western Montana including Granite, Lake, Mineral, Powell, Ravalli and Missoula Counties today that will stretch through Saturday. DEQ meteorologist Kristen Martin says satellite imagery of the smoke helped trigger the alert on Friday, July 4.

"We are seeing on satellite a lot of smoke moving across west-central Montana today," Martin said. "Most of that smoke is centered near the active fires this morning, with hazardous air quality centered on Seeley Lake and the Quartz Creek area near the Sunrise fire, but we are seeing Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups in  the Missoula area, the Bitterroot and Philipsburg."

The shifting smoke makes it hard to know where the air is unhealthy or even hazardous. Martin has a handy tip for everyday citizens who need meteorological info on the fly.

"We recommend having a location that you know the distance of, say a mountain range ten miles away, and another one five miles away. In Missoula there are so many mountain ranges around that that is something you can do ahead of time before the smoke rolls in,"Martin said. "When those features disappear it gives an indication of how bad the air quality is. Hazardous air quality is generally when visibility gets to be below a mile."

Firefighters say some of the fires burning near Missoula now, like the Lolo Peak Fire, will likely continue burning till October, so being able to judge air quality will prove to be a useful tool.