Wildfire Smoke Is Dangerous. But There Are Ways to Mitigate Its Effects

This is the 22nd consecutive year of drought in the Colorado River Basin. And with extreme drought conditions comes an increased risk of wildfires.
Wildfire smoke in Colorado. (Courtesy of Andrew Bare/Inciweb, National Wildfire Coordingating Group)

by | Jul 19, 2021 | Health, Wildfires

Alex Graf works as the Montezuma County Coordinator for Wildfire Adapted Partnership. He frequently does free site assessments, basically to see how safe your property is from wildfires. On Tuesday, Alex did a mock assessment of his own property.

“It’s a smokey day outside,” he said during the assessment. “Can’t smell the smoke but you can barely see the mountains. And that’s blowing in from Arizona. And it is my hope that this smoke will kind of remind people that ‘Oh, yeah, it is fire season. And I’ve got to do some work here.’”

Two wildfires in Arizona caused a cloud of smoke to sweep across southwest Colorado earlier this week. Graf is an expert at fire mitigation. But he grew up in New York state, where things like flooding were more a concern than drought or wildfire.

He said that he “got a big wake-up call living out here in 2018 with the 416 fire.”

Graf was close to the 416 fire the day it started.

“I was kind of just across the road and heard there was smoke down south of us a bit. Shortly after, [I] heard the highway was cut off. It was just a total disruption as to everyday life.

This is the 22nd consecutive year of consecutive drought in the Colorado River Basin, including the Four Corners region. And with extreme drought comes an increased risk of wildfires. A large part of western Colorado and the neighboring states are in “exceptional drought,” the most severe category according to the US Drought Monitor. Some are dubbing it a mega-drought. And it’s no surprise that these hot, dry conditions provide the perfect fuel for wildfire. But more so than the fires themselves, the smoke they produce is nebulous and far-reaching.

Scott Landes supervises the prescribed fire unit for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He said, “when we start talking about the smoke, we’re talking about hundreds, even 1000s of miles away from where the fire actually is.”

That’s one big risk factor for smoke is the size of the particles. The particulate matter from wildfire smoke is microscopic, 40 times smaller than a human hair.

“So that goes to show you just how tiny these particles are and how they can get lodged in your respiratory system,” said Landes.

The tiny smoke particles Landes is talking about are called PM2.5. The risk these particles pose for people with respiratory issues is well known. But Landes added that they are also troublesome “for folks who have issues with their heart. A lot of times this PM2.5 not only gets into your respiratory system, but also gets into your bloodstream.”

Landes had some recommendations for dealing with wildfire smoke. “The N95 masks can help you, certainly with PM2.5. Now a lot of us have also been using different kinds of masks, just the regular cloth masks, they are not going to help you with wildfire smoke.”

Landes also recommends that people should put an air purifier in one room of their house. It’ll serve as a “clean air room” if air quality gets particularly bad.

The smoke from Arizona earlier this week was a warning sign for Matt Shethar.  He’s the wildland coordinator for the Cortez Fire Protection District.

“It is that calm before the storm, because once it starts, you know, we might have a long summer, and it could happen all at once. Or not at all, but I am definitely planning on being busy. And that’s not just in our, in our county or in our state that’s across the US,” he said.

Shethar urges community members to call dispatch if they plan on burning even a small pile.

“And if there’s a fire ban, just please respect it. And, you know, it’s for your neighbors and for your community,” he said.

Community is a big thing for Shethar. Cortez is his hometown. So when he saw the chance to build a wildland fire program in the city, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s also protecting your neighbor’s property,” Shethar said.”You know, it’s kind of that community, community risk reduction that we all work together.”

Alex Graf knows the risk of wildfires. But he also recognizes that they’re here to stay, a natural and important part of life in the Four Corners.

“All of this wildfire preparedness is trying to move southwest Colorado, closer to the direction of a fire-adapted community,” Graf said. “The goal of a fire-adapted community is this idea that we can live with fire. It’s just kind of a matter of shifting our behavior and physical environment around us.”

According to Graf, living in the Four Corners means living alongside smoke and fire. But if you’re careful, hopefully not too close.

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About Tay Glass

Tay Glass recently graduated from Columbia Journalism School where he focused on audio storytelling. Before grad school, Tay worked as a performer, musician and director of musical theater in Japan. He’s currently working on a podcast series that explores the repercussions of journalism deserts on American democracy.

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