FARGO — Air quality in North Dakota has improved drastically over previous years, according to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report. And the group's spokesman says the reason for the improvement boils down to two words.

“Wild … fires,” Robert Moffitt said. “Wildfire smoke was causing a lot of poorer grades in earlier reports. In the time period that this report covers, there weren’t as many wildfires so there weren’t as many bad air days in North Dakota.”

The report, which analyzes air quality from 2016-18, gave mostly passing grades to the 10 counties that are monitored by the North Dakota Department of Health. All 10 had failing grades in last year’s report because of wildfires across the U.S. and Canada.

All 10 received A's for ozone pollutants, also known as smog. Six counties, including Cass, earned B’s for particle pollution, also known as soot, while two got C’s and Burleigh County received a D.

Clay County in Minnesota wasn’t tracked, but nearby Becker County received A’s in both ozone pollution and particle pollution.

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“For North Dakota the grades are very good this year,” Moffitt said. “There have been three consecutive years of poor air quality particularly in particulates. Last year there were a number of F and D grades for North Dakota and this year it really turned around.”

Burke County in northwestern North Dakota topped the list of counties in the year-round particle pollution category, while four other North Dakota counties, Mercer, Billings, McKenzie and Williams, and Minnesota's Lake and Cook counties, also ranked in the top 25 of that list.

Bismarck and Duluth were two of the five cities to rank among the country's cleanest in both ozone pollution and particle pollution, and Fargo was among the cleanest cities for ozone air pollution.

“Generally speaking, North Dakota’s urban areas do very well,” Moffitt said. “North Dakota has probably more than anything working in its favor are the geography and the weather. Both Fargo and Bismarck are in relatively flat areas. The wind blows quite a bit in North Dakota as well. Take another city, like Salt Lake City, that sits in a mountainous basin, and pollution tends to just gather there.”

Still, Moffitt says it’s difficult to project whether North Dakota will continue to rank as having some of the country's cleanest air.

“Because the improved air-quality grades in this year’s report are tied so closely to the outside factors, it’s tough to say,” Moffitt said. “The thing about the 'State of the Air' report is that it is good at tracking long-term trends. We look at three years of data and each year we move up to another year of data. We can look back at these and see whether a state’s air quality is getting better or getting worse. Any time you go from F’s to A’s and B’s, that’s a good sign.”

Looking ahead, Moffitt expects to see improving grades across the country as a result of reduced automobile emissions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Vehicle exhaust is our leading cause of air pollution in both North Dakota and Minnesota,” he said. “I think in a couple of years, we’re going to see that. It will show up in some states more than others. It might show up in Minnesota more because they have larger cities and the stay-at-home order was issued earlier in Minnesota. I think it’s definitely going to have an impact. Some studies have already seen areas where the air pollution has improved dramatically.”