By Mckenzie Moore
Note: This story was updated on Aug. 20 at 9:23 a.m. to reflect overnight growth in the Pine Gulch Fire.
The Pine Gulch wildfire north of Grand Junction has burned over 125,000 acres as of Aug. 20, and Interstate 70 was still closed near Glenwood Springs due to the Grizzly Creek fire. But one of the most widespread effects of wildfire, felt well beyond the immediate burn area, is the smoke.
While some communities, such as the North Fork Valley where smoke was settling due to the geography of the area, have already reported feeling the effects of smoke, it has been spreading to further communities and getting even thicker in some. Dependent on wind and weather patterns, the smoke could continue moving south, becoming more prevalent in areas near Montrose County.
“We anticipate that if the winds don’t come in and help clean out these areas where the smoke is settling in, we may start seeing smoke farther south, and those levels could increase as the smoke starts filling in our valleys down there,” said Andrea Holland, Air Resource Advisor on assignment for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG).
On Aug. 17, an air quality warning was issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Eagle, Pitkin, Lake, Gunnison and central and eastern Garfield counties in Colorado. Holland said that in the affected areas, people should be aware of smoke conditions and take precautions to avoid any adverse health effects.
“All of us that have lungs, including pets and wildlife, are being affected by smoke,” Holland said. “Everyone is going to be different in their response to smoke, so I always tell people to listen to your body, go inside or seek clean air, do your best to give your lungs a break.”
Those most vulnerable are people with heart disease or respiratory issues, the very young and the elderly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of smoke exposure include coughing, difficulty breathing, stinging eyes, sore or scratchy throat, fatigue, headache and chest pain or tightness. Flare-ups of more serious conditions, such as asthma attacks, can also result from inhaling wildfire smoke.
Some residents on the Western Slope have also reported falling ash from the fire, a visible demonstration of how far smoke can travel.
“There’s enough energy in the Pine Gulch fire that gets shot up, and whatever transport winds are up there, they will transport it,” Holland said. “That smoke has got ash in it, and it’s going to deposit somewhere.”
If visibility is limited by five miles due to smoke, people should stay aware of air conditions and vulnerable populations should take precautions to avoid exposure. If visibility stops at 3 miles, vulnerable populations should remain indoors and healthy populations should take precautions, and with visibility limited by 1 mile, everyone should stay inside.
Although the smoke puts a damper on the availability of outdoor recreation, Holland said to stay informed of smoke maps in the state that can indicate better places to escape the fumes. The Colorado Smoke Outlook and AirNow have updates on air quality, including AirNow’s reports from air quality monitors in various areas.
“I would say if it’s too smokey outside, try to find something else to do,” Holland said. “If they really need some exercise, start looking for monitors that are showing green. Those areas should have good enough quality where you can exercise and not risk the health of your lungs.”
To keep smoke out of residences, the best thing to do is keep all windows and doors closed and turn off any swamp coolers. Holland said if the swamp cooler is needed to stay comfortable in the heat of summer, running it just long enough to cool down rather than leaving it on perpetually will help ease the entry of smoke into the house.
Investing in an air purifier/cleaner can also help make a haven indoors.
“You can dedicate a room in your house for a clean air shelter, and that room is where you would go to get away from the smoke and avoid exposure,” Holland said. “One thing I want to add is make sure the portable air cleaner is using a HEPA filter and not emitting ozone. The ozone can aggravate lung conditions.”
If a person must be outdoors for work or an essential activity, Holland recommended using an N95 mask (if available) to filter out smoke particles, as regular cloth face masks will not be adequate. The primary precaution to take, however, is to avoid any unnecessary strenuous activity.
“In the past I would recommend an N95 mask, because the [cloth] masks we have to wear for COVID are not going to filter out that smoke,” Holland said. “Otherwise minimize strenuous activity, don’t over exert yourself, don’t try to do an activity that requires heavy breathing where you’re bringing more air into your lungs.”
Holland also emphasized the need to be aware of smoke conditions while driving, especially when traveling long distances (such as bringing college students back to campuses).
“Drive for the conditions. If [the speed limit] is 65 mph and you can’t see a mile ahead of you, slow down,” Holland said. “You want to get there safely. There should be no hurry driving through smoke. Make sure that oncoming traffic can see you, leave your lights on and definitely slow down.”