Smoke

Smoke from the Pine Gulch Fire (above), the second-largest blaze ever recorded in Colorado, has reached the San Juans and beyond. (Courtesy photo) 

Colorado is burning. At press time Friday, according to a National Interagency Fire Center map, eight wildfires were ablaze in this state.

The biggest conflagrations are both on the Western Slope. The Pine Gulch fire outside Grand Junction, at 124,934 acres in size, has become the second-largest wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history, and is 17 percent contained. The Grizzly Creek fire, on 29,992 square miles (and counting) outside Glenwood Springs, is 11 percent contained. Hot, dry weather remains in the forecast at least for the next few days, which could keep wildfire smoke in this region; air-quality advisories have been issued for numerous Colorado counties (including Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel) this past week. 

Air-resource advisor Andrea Holland has worked on wildfires — and prescribed fires —from the Pacific Northwest to California, Montana, Idaho and Colorado for the last decade, helping to “model, monitor and message” smoke impacts and disseminate that information to the public. She’s currently on assignment to the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (collectively known as GMUG) “because the GMUG wanted an expert to advise your area, which is getting affected by the Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek fires,” she said. “Both fires are dumping smoke into the Gunnison Basin.” 

To be clear: although it is nearby, Telluride is not technically part of the Gunnison Basin. “It’s just on the other side,” Holland clarified. “But Telluride just seems to get smoke. They got smoked in by the 416 fire” outside Durango last year “and I’ve been getting reports from residents in Telluride who say it’s very smoky.”

The question for those who live downwind from wildfires is simple: how to protect yourself some their deleterious health effects? Smoke specialists aren’t long-term forecasters, Holland emphasized. 

“It’s so hard to predict where the smoke will be in three days,” she said. “We expect that Saturday, the air quality might be even worse than it is today (Friday). Smoke specialists don’t look that far forward, because things can change over two or three days: Our forecasts are dependent on wind speed, wind direction, and how much the fire is burning. We’re also dependent on atmospheric mixing, and the presence or absence of inversions.”

Because air quality can quickly deteriorate, one of the best things the public can do is pay attention to the National Weather Service’s air quality advisories (which are disseminated by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment in consultation with local meteorologists and specialists at each fire) and have a plan for what to do when the smoke thickens. 

“If you’re in a sensitive group, you need to take care of yourself,” Holland said. “We do have real-time monitors: you can look at the data online on a fire and smoke map (at websites such as fire.airnow.gov). You don’t want to be outside if the smoke is bothering you, and you definitely don’t want to exert yourself. It’s especially bad for anyone with young, developing lungs; for women who are pregnant (who are carrying infants with developing lungs); for anybody with heart disease or lung disease; for those who have Covid-19, or are recovering from Covid-19; or for the elderly.”

Because wildfire smoke can infiltrate buildings, “The best thing to do is to leave the area,” Holland added, “but we can’t always do that. Very few of us want to leave the comfort of our homes. The next best thing is to shelter in place: if you happen to have an air conditioner with a HEPA filter, shut the door in the room that it it’s in, and run it. You’ll stay cool and comfortable,” and the machine will filter out the vast majority of the smoke.

Many people in this region — particularly those residing in mountain towns — don’t own an air conditioner, Holland added, “in which case, “you can purchase a portable air filter with a HEPA filter. They’re all rated for different-sized rooms; get the right size for the room you need, set it up, and close the door. That’s your safe space.”

Those with healthy lungs “will eventually recover” from exposure to wildfire smoke, Holland said, “but if you already have health issues, the smoke is just going to aggravate those conditions.” 

She advises anyone within five miles of wildfire smoke to pay attention, and those within one mile of it to stay inside, period. 

“There’s a website called mapdevelopers.com/draw-circle-tool where all you do is input your address, determine what radius you’d like, and you can see where five miles is around you,” she added. “The CDC has a really good Wildfire Smoke page that provides more information on the effects of exposure to wildfire smoke, and how to avoid it. And for more information on how to purchase an air filter, you can find a brochure at missoulaclimate.org.” 

Holland learned about the latter website, from a nonprofit called Climate Smart Missoula, while working a wildfire in Montana. She was impressed by what she found. 

“I grab hold of stuff when I come across some of these groups,” she said. “Their products are so easy to read, and understand.”