Trees and homes aren’t the only things getting scorched by wildfires raging in Utah and Nevada this week.
Pollution stemming from smoke along with soaring ozone levels are imperiling Wasatch Front residents’ lungs, prompting advisories from state officials to limit outdoor activities and avoid contributing to the problem with unnecessary driving and lawn mowing.
“It’s a double whammy,” said Donna Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “We are feeling the impact of the fire and hot temperatures. Our meteorologists are keeping an eye on the smoke. The wind is a curse on both levels, for fueling the fires and for air quality.”
Driven by hot, dry winds out of the southwest, the Dollar Ridge Fire has charred nearly 50,000 acres in Wasatch and Duchesne counties, about 50 miles east of Provo, since Sunday. It is the largest and most destructive of seven active fires in the state, all but one believed to be human-triggered.
On Friday, pollution levels threatened to exceed federal thresholds for ozone and fine particulate matter in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
Ground-level ozone is a normal pollution phenomenon on the Wasatch Front each summer. Hot weather cause tailpipe and smokestack emissions to recombine, producing a reactive three-atom oxygen molecule that is hard on everything it touches, including sensitive lung tissues.
Typically a winter-time bane, fine particulate matter has been climbing for the past few days, and it’s not all the fault of wildfire, part of it is the recent holiday.
Air-quality trend charts show particulate levels spiked for fine particulate early Thursday following Fourth of July fireworks displays. For example, Weber County registered a meteoric 415 micrograms per cubic meter, about 12 times the federal limit, while Utah County spiked at 204.
Although pollution concentrations dropped not longer after the pyrotechnics went silent, wildfire smoke has kept particulate levels elevated into ranges that are dangerous to the young, elderly and those with compromised respiratory systems.
“It’s going to be unhealthy of sensitive groups,” Spangler said. “Air quality impacts all of us differently depending on our health level. It looks like it will stay with us.“
The Dollar Ridge Fire continues to churn along Currant Creek and Strawberry River just east of Strawberry Reservoir with little end in sight, while four new major wildfires are burning in Nevada, about 200 to 300 miles west of Salt Lake City. Adding to the smoke accumulating on the Wasatch Front, the Echo, HD, Boone Springs and Hogan fires added up to nearly 30,000 acres on Friday.
The Echo Fire started Thursday and promptly ballooned to 10,000 acres south of Wells. High winds continued Friday to negate efforts to contain the fire, which is burning on mostly Bureau of Land Management terrain east of the Ruby Mountains and threatening some ranches.
Covered with dried-out grasses, the lands are ripe for explosive fire conditions following two years of drought, BLM spokesman Greg Deimel.
“You have the fuels and you have wind and the right humidity layers. They are describing extreme fire behavior,” Deimel said.
More than 100 firefighters and several aircraft are fighting the Echo Fire, which the wind has pushed north into designated wilderness in the East Humboldt Range, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has authorized full suppression, but is insisting on tactics that minimize ground impacts. Accordingly, chainsaws and bulldozers will not be deployed into the wilderness.