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Wildfires + Fireworks + Ozone (Oh July!)

 

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Wildfire in Federal Heights, July 6th. Courtesy of the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

by Talula Pontuti, SLCgreen intern

For weeks, we have experienced wildfires across the state, primarily in the southern part of Utah, where firefighters are fighting tirelessly to protect communities and landscapes.

Those fires have not only destroyed homes, habitats, and landscapes, but the fires are contributing to poor air quality in those areas and throughout Utah.

In addition, fireworks from the Fourth of July increase particulate matter, aggravating respiratory conditions for those with preexisting respiratory and heart illnesses, such as asthma and heart disease.

Combine the fires and fireworks with ozone created by vehicle and product pollution – and we have the perfect mix for poor air quality.

Understanding what is going on and what our impacts are on air quality in our city is critical to being able to keep people healthy and having fun this summer.

As of today, temperatures around the city are high and will continue to be through the weekend. There is low humidity – perfect for wildfires and poor air quality. Ozone levels are expected to be high throughout the weekend while PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller) was high earlier today and last night, reaching 40 µg/m³, which is considered “Unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

 

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Over the last week, PM2.5 levels have elevated quickly from the fireworks and wildfires, and ozone levels continue to cycle to high levels in the afternoons. Courtesy of Utah DEQ.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (Utah DEQ) has helpful resources to keep you updated on air quality:

For current conditions, go here and for the predicted forecast, go here.

Let’s catch up on wildfires…

These are the majority of the fires impacting Utah currently:

  • The Dollar Ridge Fire, east of Strawberry Reservoir is at this point 4% contained, already having burned 42,000 acres. Due to the low humidity and high winds, this fire is spreading fast and displacing many people from their homes. It’s also significantly impacting air quality across the state.
  • The Willow Creek Fire, southeast of Salt lake City, is 90% contained and started from lightning on Thursday.
  • The West Valley Fire is 28% contained at this point and has burned almost 12,000 acres, started from an abandoned campfire.
  • The Trail Mountain Fire was noted as 90% contained on Thursday, July 5th with no injuries or structure loss, having burned around 18,000 acres.
  • Willow Patch Fire: As of Wednesday, the fire is 60% contained, having burned around 4,800 acres.
  • Saratoga Springs Fire: Started Thursday night and is nearly contained, with no injuries or structures lost.

The increasing prevalence of hotter, more damaging wildfires is connected to a warming climate. Unfortunately, we may see more of these damaging fires as our climate continues to change.

And about the fireworks…

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While fireworks can be a fun way to celebrate special occasions, consider skipping personal fireworks in favor of official shows, or celebrating in other ways.

Fireworks negatively impact our air quality.

In fact, PM2.5 levels on Independence Day are frequently higher than winter inversion days along the Wasatch Front.

Smoke from the fireworks contain both PM10 and PM2.5 and are hard on our respiratory systems, especially for older adults, children, those who exercise frequently, and those with existing respiratory issues. Fireworks also release heavy metals (that make the vibrant colors we see when the fireworks go off), sulfur, and potassium into the environment and into our lungs. While short term exposure may not have lasting impacts, repeated exposure can.

Add some ozone to the mix

With elevated temperatures and bright sunshine this week, ozone levels are high even without the wildfires and fireworks. When you combine sunny days with hot temperatures, fuel vapors, tailpipe emissions, and smokestack emissions, you get surface level ozone that can affect your breathing. It also exacerbates asthma, other respiratory illnesses, and heart disease. 

So what can we do about summertime air quality?

With all of these environmental conditions colliding, it’s easy to get depressed. However, we can take action!

  • Recreate in the morning or evening hours, avoiding times of day with high ozone levels.
  • If wildfire smoke remains high, reduce time spent outside.
  • Consider using a face mask outside which is rated as N95 or N99 if spending a lot of time outdoors.
  • During episodes of unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke, spend time in buildings with good HVAC systems, which will filter out much of the PM2.5.
  • If you’re particularly impacted or concerned, you may want to consider investing in an indoor air filter.
  • Reduce driving by combining trips, carpooling, or using alternative, low impact methods of transportation such as public transit or biking. This will help alleviate amount of pollutants contributing to high ozone levels.
  • Be Idle Free when you do drive to limit emissions from your car.
  • Avoid using lawn mowers and other gas-consuming products. It’s especially important to avoid these tools during times of bad air quality. Most lawn mowers emit high levels of VOCs, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, making up 5% of the United States’ air pollution according to the EPA.
  • It is helpful to use push lawn mowers instead, xeriscape your yard, or grow plants that do not need to be mowed at all.
  • Remember! This year, there is new Utah legislation that prohibits the use of fireworks outside of July 2-5 and July 22-25. Note: These areas of Salt Lake City are banned from having fireworks. Check here for banned locations.
  • With Pioneer Day coming up later this month, please note areas where personal fireworks are banned and consider other ways to celebrate the event by going to official firework shows. Personal fireworks can cause harm to the health of those around you and can spark fires.
  • If you or others are sensitive to respiratory illnesses or are noticing increased issues with breathing, avoid any firework shows and enjoy them from a safe distance.

Join us in taking these measures to protect our health, reduce our emissions, and enjoy the many other good things that summer has to offer!

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