Utah chokes under the smoke of historic California fires

Air quality along the Wasatch Front took a dive late Thursday after shifting weather patterns pushed smoke billowing from California’s raging wildfires over northern Utah, erasing mountain views, pushing people indoors and creating colorful sunsets.

“We’re being inundated with smoke from a lot of fires. It’s parking here, so we are being smoked out,” said Bo Call, who heads the Utah Division of Air Quality’s monitoring program. “There isn’t a lot we can can do until a storm comes in and blows it out or they can put the fires out in California. It may get worse before it gets better.”

Forecasts indicate high concentrations of fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, will remain at least through the weekend, but these levels won’t remain constant as they do during wintertime inversions. Instead they will swing wildly up and down, like shifting tides, as winds push the smoke around, according to Logan Mitchell, a research professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.

“The emerging situation is fascinating. We have a plume of air being dragged up through southern Idaho, into Wyoming and Montana, and it just sort of stopped and is sitting there, being dragged into northern Utah,” Mitchell said. “It looks like it’s pulsing almost, air masses sloshing around. We are on the edge. It must be worse north of us. Boise is getting hammered.”

[Read more: The coronavirus pandemic is behind Utah’s record number of human-caused wildfires, officials say]

Across Northern California’s coastal ranges, parched hillsides are in flames with little relief in sight. More than 30 Utah firefighters are setting out Saturday morning to help fight the blazes, according to the Utah Emergency Division of Management.

A graphic model generated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows how the fires’ smoke is moving across the region

Air monitors in Salt Lake, Cache, Tooele, Weber and Davis counties indicated sharp spikes in PM2.5 early Friday, hitting levels far into the unhealthy range. No data was available from Box Elder County.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun sets over a smoky Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

Salt Lake City’s monitoring station recorded a peak of 85 micrograms per cubic meter at 3 a.m. before dropping and hovering around 40 micrograms, a level considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Meanwhile, Tooele County’s monitoring station, in Erda, showed PM2.5 values climbing beyond 100 on Friday.

“There’s a little mixing going on there. We don’t necessarily believe we are going to see exceedances [of federal air quality standards], but for a few hours at times it can be bad,” Call said. “I compare it to standing near a campfire. Everybody needs to pay attention.”

Mandatory actions were in place in Utah’s stricken counties Friday and are expected to remain in place though Sunday. Residents are barred from open burning and are strongly encouraged to limit driving.

People, especially those with health concerns, should avoid exercising outdoors.

“Let’s not add to the mess,” said Jared Mendenhall, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “Today is the day you want to take it easy. We are seeing one-hour levels in the unhealthy range. The sensitive population will find it difficult to breathe today. Stay indoors and keep windows shut.”