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Smoke, dust darken Durango skies

Fires burning in Arizona linked to Monday’s haze in Southwest Colorado
Onlookers watch the 416 Fire that started north of Durango in June 2018. Smoke from wildfires in Arizona and dust carried by high winds created hazy skies in Durango on Monday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Smoke and dust carried by high winds blanketed Durango on Monday as the 2022 fire season continues to set a blistering pace.

The Pipeline Fire north of Flagstaff, Arizona, sparked Sunday morning and has quickly grown to 20,178 acres, according to InciWeb, a federal emergency database. The fire has forced thousands of evacuations as firefighters battle wind and the quickly expanding blaze, according to reporting from The Arizona Republic.

A second fire near Flagstaff ignited early Monday morning and had engulfed about 4,000 acres as of Tuesday afternoon. The Haywire Fire has forced additional evacuations as the blaze has merged with a third fire in the area.

Monday’s haziness was a combination of smoke from the fires, dust and a jet stream that was concentrating the two in the Four Corners, said Erin Walter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“The force would be dust and smoke from fires in Arizona and they’re being transported by very strong winds,” Walter said.

Windy conditions and blowing dust and smoke led the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to institute an air quality advisory on Monday for La Plata and Archuleta counties.

The state public health agency recommended all individuals, especially those with heart or lung disease, older adults and children, reduce prolonged or heavy activity.

Monitors recorded moderate and unhealthy air quality Monday afternoon in Durango, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for San Juan Basin Public Health.

AirNow, the federal air quality database, showed moderate air quality for PM10, PM2.5 and ozone, three common air pollutants, but by Monday evening the database upgraded the air quality in Durango to hazardous.

Graham recommended people stay indoors, close their windows and reduce their activity levels because of the heavy dust and smoke.

The haziness in Durango on Monday was yet another sign of an above-average start to the 2022 fire season.

As of Tuesday, 29,827 fires had burned nearly 2.7 million acres across the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That outpaces any year in the last decade.

In 2017, wildfires consumed about 2.5 million acres over the same time. Last year, a peak of 27,324 fires chewed through 951,851 acres by June 14.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported seven new large fires and 40 active large fires Tuesday across Alaska, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Texas and Utah. Fires in the U.S. are actively burning nearly 1.2 million acres, according to the center.

While the wind transported smoke from Arizona, Durango and Southwest Colorado are themselves at increased fire risk.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Monday until 11 p.m. A red flag warning was again in effect until 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Though the smoke in Durango was diluted compared with the air around Flagstaff, it still posed a risk to human health.

Wildfire smoke can travel more than 600 miles and, though often associated with industrial pollution sources like oil and power plants, studies have shown that the fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke is more toxic.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is a significant air pollutant in wildfire smoke, and it has been linked to cancers and heart and respiratory disease, according to the World Health Organization.

PM2.5 stands for particular matter 2.5 and denotes the size of the particulates in the air pollution. At 2.5 microns or less in diameter, PM2.5 is approximately 1/25 the width of a human hair.

A September 2021 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, a peer-reviewed journal, found that exposure to PM2.5 pollution from wildfires increased a person’s risk of death.

Another study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2012 estimated 339,000 people die annually across the globe because of exposure to wildfires.

The smoke and dust Monday lasted through the evening before relaxing overnight. After a milder day Tuesday, winds will again pick up on Wednesday, Walter said.

“(The wind) is more so from the west and maybe even northwest by the afternoon, which should help improve the air quality,” she said. “... It does look like it will at least divert that smoke away from the Four Corners.”


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