Hazy skies blamed on fires burning around the world

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Fire season 2003 is here – at least if you live in Siberia.

Hazy skies greeted the valley and much of the state yesterday, prompting hundreds of residents to call the sheriff’s office and fire department to find out what was going on.

The haze is similar to the one that filled the skies at the peak of fire season last summer, when hundreds of thousands of acres were burning around the state. But in reality it is more like the haze that blanketed local skies in April 2001, when the jet stream carried the residue of a massive dust storm in Mongolia into much of the western United States.

Federal officials suspect the recent haze is from ash and smoke from more than 20 fires burning in Siberia and eastern Russia, one in Hawaii and two in northern California.

For much of the day, deputies and fire officials fielding calls were unable to provide an answer for worried residents. State and federal officials weren’t reporting any fires in the immediate area, or anywhere in western Colorado for that matter, so they weren’t sure what was happening.

As of 3 p.m., the National Weather Service’s Grand Junction office had no idea where the haze was coming from, though one forecaster said he’d fielded about 50 calls about it.

The forecaster, who declined to give his name, said the haze covered much of Colorado, although one caller from southern Utah told the forecaster that the skies there were clear.

“It has the appearance of smoke,” the forecaster said. “But it hasn’t been a big enough concern for anyone to say, `Let’s find out what’s going on.'”

But local officials were more curious. Jan Osnes of the Aspen Fire Protection District called around until she found an explanation at the U.S. Forest Service’s office in Grand Junction.

Smoke from the fires in Russia, Hawaii and California was blamed for the haze over Colorado. The smoke-filled jet stream was running through Russia and into the northwestern United States and then down into Colorado, according to the USFS officials with whom Osnes spoke. Southerly winds from the Pacific were also blowing toward the jet stream, perhaps carrying the smoke from Hawaii.

“A couple of people, when I told them it was fires in eastern Russia, were a little surprised,” Osnes said.

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