Pitkin County under air quality health advisory | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County under air quality health advisory

Pitkin County is under an air quality health advisory as a result of smoke burning from the Cache Creek Fire near Rifle as well as the Lake Christine Fire and regional wildfires spanning all the way to California.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Thursday morning issued an air quality health advisory that included the Roaring Fork Valley as an affected area, prompting Pitkin County and other jurisdictions to send out warnings.

"Smoke from nearby regional fires will continue to reduce air quality in the valley in the mornings and will dissipate throughout the day," Brian Anderson, an incident commander on the Lake Christine Fire, wrote in an update Thursday.

For most of Thursday in Aspen, the Air Quality Index, which monitors and analyzes air pollution, reported in the "moderate" range nearing the level of "unhealthy for sensitive groups." By Thursday evening, however, conditions reached the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" category, according to the index, which also looks at the health effects people may experience within a few hours or days of breathing polluted air.

"Sensitive groups" generally refer to people with respiratory illness or heart disease, elderly folks and young children, particularly younger than 6 years old, said Jannette Whitcomb, senior environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen.

Whitcomb said she also tends to classify "ultra-athletes" as extra sensitive to smoky conditions.

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Since the Lake Christine Fire broke out July 3, Whitcomb said the department has received at least one call per day, if not every other day, from people inquiring about air safety.

Typically, the calls are from folks "outside of the valley trying to decide whether they want to come to Aspen or not," she said.

Smoke conditions vary "highly" throughout the day based on a number of different climatic factors, said Ray Merry, Eagle County environmental health director.

An area's topography and meteorology, wind direction, fire intensity and type of burn are just a few contributing elements.

For instance, on Thursday smoke in the valley was "much worse" in the morning than in the afternoon, said Lake Christine Fire public information officer Steven La-Sky, pointing to the wind as one factor.

In other words, associating a certain time of day with better or worse air quality is not a black-or-white formula, officials said.

La-Sky said that smoke blowing from regional wildfires, and in particular the Cache Creek Fire southwest of Rifle, has caused increasing concern among valley residents as of late.

"A lot of people were worried that it's coming from the Lake Christine Fire," La-Sky said. "California is burning, Oregon is burning, Nevada is burning, Utah is burning.

"It's life in the West these days, unfortunately."

During the first three weeks of the Lake Christine Fire, the U.S. Forest Service wildland fire air quality response program was on site, Merry said. The team left Tuesday to see to wildfires in other areas, but officials from the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division are continuing to monitor the smoke and provide outlooks locally, he said.

In the past month since the start of the Lake Christine Fire, Aspen Valley Hospital has seen between five and nine patients for respiratory issues likely tied to the fire, hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Slaughter said Thursday. Whether four of the patients' respiratory problems were directly because of the Lake Christine Fire was unknown, Slaughter said, hence the discrepancy in numbers.

In a meeting with valley-wide residents Thursday, La-Sky said one woman in the crowd quipped, "It was only fair that (we) were now receiving smoke from the Rifle area fire, because for the past month we've been sending them our smoke."

"Everybody got a little laugh out of that," La-Sky said. "It's important in times like these that people keep a sense of humor."

erobbie@aspentimes.com

For real-time air quality updates, visit http://www.aspenairquality.com or http://www.purpleair.com.