No breathing easy in Aspen, valley due to wildfires | AspenTimes.com
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No breathing easy in Aspen, valley due to wildfires

Roaring Fork Valley residents probably won’t be breathing easy any time soon.

The Grizzly Creek Fire has shrouded the valley with a thick blanket of smoke in recent days as winds have tended to be light and out of the north. When there is a reprieve from that fire, the Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction pumps in smoke on the prevailing western winds.

The circumstances have got exercise junkies consulting their favorite new apps to see if it is safe to venture outside. One site that has emerged as a favorite for gauging small particulate matter, known as PM2.5, is http://www.purpleair.com.

Tuesday at 5:15 p.m., the site was showing a level in Aspen that could cause problems for people with existing lung issues but not for the general public. In Basalt, on the other hand, the level was high enough that the site warned, “Everyone may begin to experience health effects if they are exposed for 24 hours.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Tuesday issued a Colorado Smoke Outlook warning that “evening smoke will begin to drain into lower lying areas surrounding both fires” and heavy overnight smoke from Grizzly Creek will remain an issue into Wednesday.

William Basye, air quality adviser with the U.S. Forest Service, said at an online community meeting regarding the Grizzly Creek Fire on Tuesday night that the agency and partners have set up air monitors from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and out to Eagle and Vail. That is what they are basing their daily forecasts on. One monitor can cover “an expansive area,” he said.

“The smoke just wants to travel down at night. As it goes up and it comes down, it sinks down and sinks into the valleys,” he said. “We’re seeing impacts all the way up to Aspen that are unhealthy to very unhealthy up there at night and then coming down to Carbondale and definitely down here in Glenwood Springs.”

Colleen Reid, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, studies how air pollution from wildfire smoke influences respiratory health.

“The bulk of the evidence shows that when there’s high pollution during wildfire events, there is an increase in respiratory illness,” she said Tuesday.

All people in the smoke zone can suffer from watery eyes, scratchy throat and a cough. People with existing conditions such as asthma may be forced to use medications more frequently and even visit their doctors.

The smoke and haze was so thick Monday afternoon that peaks such as Mount Sopris were obscured and the orange glow so common by late afternoon when smoke filters the sunlight gave way to gloom.

Reid said the fine particulates in wildfire smoke produce the haze or dark cloud.

“That’s just solid and liquid particles that are so small that they don’t settle to the ground. They just remain suspended in the air,” she said. “The more of that there is, the more likely that there will be health impacts. If the air looks just a little bit hazy, that’s probably not as bad as when it’s really hazy.”

She advised people to do what they can to decrease their exposure to smoke. At a time when social distancing is required because of the COVID-19 crisis, options such as air-conditioned malls and movie theaters aren’t as viable of a way to beat the heat and smoke. Reid said HEPA air filters are a good option in homes as are high quality filters in air conditioning units.

As for exercise, Reid advised consulting with apps for real-time measurements and using common sense.

“If you can see smoke, if your visibility is impaired, I would recommend not exercising outdoors during that time,” she said. “That’s challenging for a lot of Coloradans who are very outdoors oriented.”

The exposure to the small particulates is magnified by exertion.

“Because of exercising you are taking in a larger amount of air because you’re breathing more frequently and therefore you’re getting a higher dose of the particles into your lungs. That’s what the concern would be,” Reid said.

Carbon monoxide levels aren’t a big concern for people living downwind of a wildfire, according to the research. More research needs to be completed on other pollutants in wildfire smoke, Reid said.

Extensive research has been done on particles.

“Regarding the particles, the large particles don’t get as deep into the lungs so it’s really the smallest ones that are of the most concern,” Reid said. “Any combustion will create some of these particles and wildfire smoke does create lots of very tiny particles that get deep into the lungs and affect the alveoli and some of them can even transfer into the bloodstream and therefore travel throughout the body. Fine particles have been found in all parts of the human body because we breathe them in all the time.”

New research also shows that breathing in the particles can be detrimental down the road.

“There’s an interesting study that came out last year that more people obviously need to replicate,” Reid said. “It indicated in the influenza season following a high wildfire season in Montana, there were many more cases of the flu that they can attribute to that previous exposure the summer before.”

Editor David Krause contributed to this story. scondon@aspentimes.com


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