Northern Arizona air quality in question after smoky wildfire season

The Boundary Fire in early June burned within containment lines west of Flagstaff, creating smoke clouds in Flagstaff and surrounding communities. Photo/USFS

The Boundary Fire in early June burned within containment lines west of Flagstaff, creating smoke clouds in Flagstaff and surrounding communities. Photo/USFS

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Northern Arizona has a reputation of producing crisp mountain air and some of the best high altitude hiking. But all that goes out the window when the forest catches fire and the air is filled with smoke.

“Here in northern Arizona, generally, our air quality is quite good,” said Patricia Ellsworth, professor of environmental engineering at Northern Arizona University and a member of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals. “It’s when we have fires that we see a change in that. Also, in the winter, when a lot of wood stoves are going, that will impact our air quality.”

During last month’s Boundary Fire, west of Flagstaff, smoke clung to the surrounding mountains and settled into nearby communities, causing some to wonder how long the smoke was there to stay and what kind of health impacts it could cause.

According to Mansel Nelson, senior program coordinator for Tribal Environmental Education Outreach, one of the biggest factors in maintaining good air qulaity is something completly out of our control — the weather.

“Anytime you’re talking about air pollution, the weather is a huge contributing factor as to what the end results of the conditions might be, whether it’s a pollutant source like a large forest fire, it’s going to be very dependent on the weather as to how it impacts surrounding areas,” he said. “As the earth cools at night that smoke tends to come closer to the earth and as the wind shifts, because often there will be a wind shift between day and night, we (will) tend to see it worse at night than in the day.”

According to Nelson, the weather patterns and the cooling soil allows the smoke to settle on top.

“So even though we live on a mountain we can still get those weather conditions that bring the pollution closer to the ground. We don’t tend to experience the long inversions like you might see in Phoenix where they might have an inversion days at a time — all those pollutants collecting and staying close to the surface.”

Health impacts

While impacts from air pollutants, including smoke, generally do not have as much impact on young, healthy individuals it could put children, elderly and those with prior respiratory or heart related conditions at risk.

“For young, healthy people there will be some impact, probably not enough to send anyone to the hospital, but burning eyes, scratchy throat and coughing, irritation in the nose,” Nelson said. “I would say that during a smoke event all of us, even young, healthy people, ought to restrict activities and if possible spend more time indoors with windows and doors closed.”

Babies and children are also more susceptible to developing more severe health impacts.

“Their lungs are still developing and they breath at a faster rate,” Ellsworth said. “I would definitely not want young children playing outside during a smoke event.”

Elderly, especially those who might have a prior breathing issues or a history of heart disease should also take precautions.

“If someone’s heart is already compromised due to some type of heart disease they’re also more inclined to have problems during these smoke events,” Nelson added. “Ultimately it could be heart attack and death, so it’s pretty serious. It can aggravate any previous heart conditions.”

Additionally, those with asthma or suffering from other respiratory issues could have their conditions exasperated by pollutants.

Nelson suggested staying indoors, reduce activity levels and ensure prescriptions are filled and close by. He also suggested using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, which helps filters out small particles from smoke. HEPA filters can be used with HVAC units, central air systems or as a stand-alone unit.

“So far this summer we have not had any days that would have exceeded the national standard for particular matter,” he said.

Even with smoke and other pollutants, because northern Arizona has less urban sprawl and more rural communities, Ellsworth and Nelson said air quality is better.

“I don’t know if it’s high elevations that make our air quality better, but certainly not being in the valley is helpful. Pollutants tend to accumulate in valleys because of the windy conditions. We do have the advantage here … we have the advantage since we are in certain rural areas,” Nelson said.

For those using swamp coolers, including some places on the Navajo or Hopi reservations, Ellsworth said individuals should pay attention to the pads on the coolers, which could be porous.

“A big smoke event can be very difficult for people on the reservation,” she said. “I think some of the same things Nelson mentioned — HEPA filters and reducing activity can be very useful there as well.”

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