Wildfire smoke can have health effects | VailDaily.com

Wildfire smoke can have health effects

EAGLE COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service's most recent wildfire map lists 74 "large incidents" in the western U.S. Those fires have created a smoke plume that tracks across much of northern North America, including the Vail Valley.

Smoke from those fires has locally put a steady gray haze into our normally blue skies. That haze does more than mar the views — it can create health hazards. In fact, the Air Quality division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last week issued a wildfire smoke health advisory for the northern half of the state.

Division spokesman Christopher Dann said that advisory was allowed to expire Monday.

The division bases its warnings on federal standards for air pollution, including particulates from the wildfire. The smaller the particles, the more potentially hazardous they are, since those particles can be inhaled more deeply and are harder to expel.

WHO IS AT RISK?

While the advisory was lifted, Dann said the haze remains a potential hazard, particularly to people who have asthma or other respiratory diseases. Older and younger people may also be more susceptible. But, Dann added, the haze can also be hazardous to well-trained athletes.

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"We're encouraging people to consider delaying activities like (cycling and running) out of doors," Dann said. In Denver, there's 20 percent less oxygen in the atmosphere than at sea level. There's even less at our elevations.

"That means a little pollution goes a long way," Dann said. "Even though we're acclimated, there's less available oxygen."

State officials have been tracking wildfire smoke dating back to the 2002 Hayman fire, which burned northwest of Colorado Springs. That fire destroyed more than 130 homes and burned nearly 140,000 acres. Dann said that fire helped the division establish ways to evaluate — and warn the public about — smoke from wildfires.

LOCAL MEDICAL CENTERS

While the air may be more hazardous right now, those hazards don't seem to be showing up in local medical centers. Eagle Valley Family Practice is the Eagle-based physicians' group associated with Valley View Medical Center in Glenwood Springs. A spokesman there — who didn't want his name used — said the Eagle clinic hadn't seen any real increase in respiratory or similar complaints over the past few days.

Dr. Brooks Bock, CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, the physicians' group associated with Vail Valley Medical Center, said in an email that the clinic has seen a slight increase over the past few days in patients complaining of eye irritation, irritated throats and similar problems. But, he added, "there's no way to know for certain that this is related to smoke in the air."

WIND NEEDS TO SHIFT

The haze over the Vail Valley isn't going to break without a shift in weather patterns. In short, the wind needs to stop blowing toward us from the Pacific Northwest and needs to start blowing from the desert Southwest. The National Weather Service's Grand Junction office is forecasting at least a temporary shift sometime in the next few days. That shift may also bring some rain — there's a 40 percent chance of showers on Wednesday — but it's the wind shift that's important.

In the meantime, the Western wildfires continue to burn — and, in some places, may burn until snow and rain comes. That means we're probably not yet done with at least periods of hazy skies.

Dann shared his rule of thumb for potentially hazardous air.

"If you can, find a point about five miles away," Dann said. "If it's obscured or you can't see it, the air's unhealthy."

Dan also urged people to use the division's resources, but also to gauge air quality based on how they feel. Symptoms can range from red eyes to chest tightness.

"Pay attention," Dann said. "We can all be vulnerable."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

How big are those fires?

Western wildfires right now are reported mostly in Washington, Oregon and California. Those fires together have burned hundreds of thousands of acres. One, the Okanogan Complex fire in Washington, has already burned more than 400 square miles, more than 250,000 acres.

According to an Associated Press report, just that fire might continue burning until rain and snow helps blunt the spread of the blaze.