Smoke coming all the way from the Pine Gulch and Grizzly Creek wildfires is having a visible impact on the air quality in Denver.

The air quality has reached unhealthy levels for “sensitive groups” and will stay at this level through Wednesday afternoon, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The wildfire smoke is harming air quality in terms of ozone concentration and fine particulate concentrations.  

The greatest impacts in air quality are expected in locations within the Denver metro area, as well as northward along the I-25 corridor to Longmont.

Scott Landes, supervisor of the meteorology and prescribed fire unit with CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, said that while wildfire smoke is common, the drought and winds heighten the issue. 

“That has really enhanced these fires,” Landes said. “We have had really dry, windy weather patterns, especially in western parts of the state where the fires are located. These fires are producing enormous amounts of smoke, and that smoke is being transported eastward.” 

CDPHE advises people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children to reduce prolonged heavy exertion on Wednesday. 

Landes suggests that individuals in theimpacted areas should take it slow while outside and limit that time as much as possible. He said the ill or elderly who may be suffering from respiratory problems are at a heightened risk in this worsened air quality

He said this worsened air quality can play into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You combine COVID-19 in with this and people might become more vulnerable to COVID-19 because their immune systems get broken down by wildfire smoke, and people who have COVID-19, their symptoms could get worse,” Landes said. “It makes things very difficult for those populations that are really suffering right now.” 

Landes said one of the biggest concerns when looking at traveling wildfire smoke is fine particulate matter: extremely small particles that can be inhaled  and lodge into an individual’s respiratory system.

“That can cause respiratory problems but also issues with people who have heart disease,” Landes said.

Landes added that one of the difficulties when it comes to tracking this specific increase in wildfire smoke is the fact that smoke is coming in waves.

“We will have a decrease in the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere in certain times of the day but then as the smoke plume comes in we will get these spikes,” Landes said. “It is difficult (to determine) exactly when those will occur.”

While carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide concentrations are expected to remain in the “good” category, according to CDPHE, visibility is expected to be in the moderate to poor category due to the smoke. 

“From an aesthetic point of view and people’s general morale the visibility is a very negative outcome,” Landes said “Then you add in the compromised health and it becomes a very negative situation overall.” 

Both fires continue to burn with little containment. According to the Incident Information System, the Pine Gulch Fire, which started July 31, has covered over 51,000 acres and is only 7% contained. According to the Post Independent, the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon became the highest-priority fire in the United States Tuesday, driven by “hot, windy weather through a virtual tinderbox of dry vegetation.” This led to forced evacuations and the closing of I-70 through today and possibly longer. As of this morning, the Incident Information System says that the fire has covered over 3,700 acres. 

Landes said his team is focusing on the transport winds at the locations of the fires. Residents can expect smoke on the front range Wednesday through Friday morning, but if the transport winds at the fires shift, smoke may move more southward. However, that could change based on the fires themselves.

“We may get to start seeing some improvement” by the weekend, Landes said. “This is all dependent on the activity of the fires (themselves), which is very hard to predict.” 

Visit the Colorado air quality website to track the trends in the particulate concentrations and ozone concentrations throughout the day.

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