Rise of Western wildfires makes for gloomy air quality future in Utah

Sunday , September 10, 2017 - 5:00 AM

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

The Uintah Fire burns through residential areas near the mouth of Weber Canyon on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. Strong winds drove the grass fire into surrounding neighborhoods were it destroyed homes and forced residents to evacuate.

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

By the end of August, before wildfire smoke began to billow throughout Weber County, Sara Findlay had already been to the doctor three times to treat upper respiratory infections for her asthma.

Then fires began lighting up throughout the West, including the Uintah Fire, just miles from the 24-year-old’s Riverdale home. 

“I've had to leave work early to go to urgent care. I've been on my way to work and (had to) turn around to go to the hospital,” she said.

Findlay is still on her parent’s insurance, but last week she went to her doctor twice and shelled out $350 in medical bills and prescriptions, all because of the smoke, she said.

She said much of the medication she needs is sold out in pharmacies because of a rush of patients trying to grapple with Northern Utah’s poor air quality. Now she’s working long shifts at her restaurant job to make up for all the time lost.

“It’s extremely hard, we don’t get vacation days or sick days, that’s the food industry,” she said through coughs and a raspy voice.

The Standard-Examiner sent out a social media request for stories about people coping with last week’s bad air. The post garnered more than 100 responses with stories like Findlay’s. 

People like Findlay know their breathing problems get triggered by bouts of bad air, like fine particulate pollution during wintertime inversions and, increasingly, summertime spikes of ozone. But wildfires spew especially high levels of smokey pollution, as well as the the gases that can turn into ozone later.

A changing global climate means wildfires will only become more common in the West, painting a dark picture for many Utahns already afflicted with breathing problems. 

“Wildfire’s high levels of air pollution can cause exacerbation of asthma, increased medication use, visits to physicians or more extreme visits to hospitals and emergency departments,” said Colleen Reid, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Her research focuses in part on the health impacts of wildfire air pollution. After analyzing multiple wildfires in many communities, she also found that they correlate with a rise in community death rates from all causes, meaning for a sick person, that spike in bad, smokey air can, “trigger the straw that broke the camels’ back,” Reid said.

The West’s growing wildfire danger is caused by increasing heat and decreasing moisture in the area. Researchers like Reid are grappling with how to best prepare the public for a future where these smoke-spewing fires become common. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to do mass evacuations of a smoke-impacted area, for example, because all the stress and car pollution can make symptoms even worse.

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In the meantime, fires are getting bigger and harder to fight, due in part to the Smokey the Bear era of total fire suppression. 

“There’s also ecological importance to fire. The goal is not to eliminate fire from the ecosystem,” Reid said. “One goal of my research going forward is to understand what can be done ... there hasn’t been too much work done on various (human health) interventions.”

A record-breaking hot and dry summer that fueled Western wildfires also likely took Utah into non-compliance for federal ozone air quality standards.

Ozone is an invisible gas that has a sunburn-like effect on the lungs. Ground-level ozone pollution is created when gases from tailpipes and other human sources chemically react with sunlight.

“From the whole summer standpoint, (air quality) hasn’t been really good,” said Bo Call, Utah Division of Air Quality Air Monitoring Manager. “Frankly, there are a lot of people on the Wasatch Front that have been impacted, whether it’s an inconvenience or health-debilitating type of impacts.”

Call lives in South Weber, and his home was evacuated during the Uintah Fire. But he pointed our numerous fires are burning in the region and blowing smoke into Northern Utah, making it difficult to escape the bad air.

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“We’ve really noticed it, we’ve had spikes in ozone which I’d like to say are fire-related,” he said. “We’ve seen spikes to particulate pollution, we think they’re fire-related.”

That’s because fire releases both small particles, like PM 2.5, and the gases that form ozone. 

Brian Moench, an anesthesiology doctor and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is especially concerned about wildfire smoke pollution mingling with Utah’s ozone pollution.

“In these circumstances, with wildfire particulate matter and ozone, it makes it difficult to protect yourself,” he said. “There are no filters or masks that will protect a person from ozone because it’s a gas. Wildfire particulate matter tends to be smaller than the particulate matter from tailpipes and smoke stacks.”

Those fine particles from smoke more easily penetrate homes. Moench recommends Utahns invest in electronic filters for their heating and air conditioning units. For those who can’t afford their $500 to $1,000 price tag, he recommends stand-alone filtration units for the bedroom.

“You spend a third of your of life in bedroom sleeping, so it can provide a fair amount of protection,” Moench said. 

Health and air quality experts also stress limiting outdoor activity during periods of bad air. Those recommendations aren’t just for those with chronic respiratory issues. Air pollution takes a toll on everyone, Moench said.

“You can think of particulate matter as little tiny microscopic invaders,” he said. “What does body do when exposed to invasion? It kicks up an inflammatory response to resist it.”

That can impact circulation and blood pressure. It can also lead to strokes or impact fetuses. But scientists still don’t fully understand how prolonged periods of bad air impact otherwise healthy people.

“There have been some studies that have gone back and surveyed people, in retrospect, after a wildfire, but respondents have a recall bias — they might be more likely to say they had symptoms after the fact,” Reid said. “There are things that happen on the cellular level, too, that person doesn’t recognize but cause a problem later on in life.”

When air pollution begins settling on the Wasatch Front, Call encourages every resident to do his or her part to make air quality a little better.

“My current stump speech includes a shout-out that there are several million people on the Wasatch Front,” Call said. “Everyone contributes in some way to the air pollution problems we have.”

Findlay, too, wishes more people living on the Wasatch Front would be mindful of people like her with respiratory problems — doing their part to drive less or to clear the brush around their homes to help curb fuel for fast-spreading fires. 

“The air is going to get worse every year. If there’s not improvement in the air, my body can’t make an improvement at all,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize what’s it’s like to have your esophagus close so you can’t breathe.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen