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Smoke fouls air as fires, heat hammer U.S. northern Rockies

Smoke fouls air as fires, heat hammer U.S. northern Rockies

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Montana Wildfires

In this photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management, a helicopter works above the Devil's Creek Fire in central Montana on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Five firefighters were injured when a thunderstorm and swirling winds in central Montana blew a lightning-caused wildfire back on them, federal officials said Friday, July 23, 2021. (Mark Jacobsen/Bureau of Land Management via AP)

Record-breaking heat was forecast to return Tuesday to the Northern Rockies, where thick smoke from dozens of large wildfires drove pollution readings to unhealthy levels.

Unhealthy air was recorded around most of Montana's larger cities - Billings, Butte, Bozeman and Missoula - and in portions of northern Wyoming and eastern Idaho, according data from U.S. government air monitoring stations.

More than 40 large fires were burning in the three states and smoke was also pouring in from blazes on the West Coast.

Dangerously hot conditions with temperatures as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) were forecast in eastern Montana and northern Wyoming.

Billings and Sheridan, Wyoming, were expected to set record highs.

Across the U.S. West this summer, firefighters have confronted an unusually large number of wildfires early in the season as drought grips a region that's also warming due to climate change. That's making it harder to control and put out fires that have been blanketing much of the nation with smoke in recent days.

The hot and dry conditions contributed to a fire southeast of Cascade in central Montana doubling in size overnight. The blaze in the Harris Mountain area has burned nearly 30 square miles (77 square kilometers), prompting an evacuation order for 60 homes.

More than 200 firefighters have responded to the fire that was started by lightning last week. They were among about 5,000 firefighters deployed across the Northern Rockies as of Tuesday.

Pollution levels were high enough over a 24-hour period that Montana officials issued an air quality alert and recommended people limit prolonged activity in Bozeman, Broadus and Hamilton.

Children, the elderly and people with heart disease or respiratory ailments are most at risk, state officials said.

An air quality alert also was issued for Lemhi County, Idaho.

Growing scientific research points to potential long-term health damage from breathing in microscopic particles of smoke.

N95 masks can protect against wildfire smoke but need to fit properly to be effective. When the smoke gets bad, health officials recommend keeping doors and windows closed, and running an air filter to clean inside air.

Associated Press writer Iris Samuels in Helena contributed to this report.

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