That smoky air from California wildfires that you can see, smell and maybe even taste is expected to hang around for several more days.
Air quality data showed Salt Lake County’s air surged into the red, unhealthy zone Saturday, while conditions in Weber, Davis and Utah counties registered as unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Readings for fine particulate PM 2.5 pollution Saturday and Sunday “were about as high as you’ll ever see,” said Jared Mendenhall, Utah Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson.
PM 2.5 and ozone, two pollutants commonly tracked, get into the lungs and cause irritation for many people and health problems for some, such as those with asthma or heart conditions.
After improving slightly by midweek, pollution forecasts Wednesday by DEQ warned of consistently unfavorable conditions in the orange zone for those in the sensitive groups in Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties.
Weber County’s forecast calls for moderate conditions. Under the moderate, yellow forecast, people highly sensitive to the pollutants should consider reducing prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion, Mendenhall said.
During such periods, the state urges people to drive less, consolidate trips, use public transit, bike or walk.
“This can help moderate emissions being added to the already bad air,” Mendenhall said.
After more than 10,000 lightning strikes in three days, hundreds of wildfires erupted across California last week, burning more than 300,000 acres, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.
Smoke from those blazes has spread across large swaths of the western United States and the Pacific Ocean.
Wildfire smoke is dangerous because it carries tiny, harmful particles into the air, state and federal health officials say. The solid and liquid particles can degrade air quality and cause breathing and lung problems, particularly for people with asthma. Long-term exposure to air pollution also can contribute to heart disease and cancer.
Mendenhall said the severity of the California smoke plume over the weekend was a surprise to Utah monitors.
“We did see really, really high levels and they weren’t expected to be that high,” he said.
That was because, he said, “for most of the summer the weather pattern was set up going north into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.”
“What happened last week was that it shifted such that the smoke was driven directly into Northern Utah,” he said. “We’re still seeing smoke pollution and will for the coming week.”
He said it’s “ozone season” in the summer, so that pollutant is expected to be elevated here at this time of year.
“But with fine particulate it’s easy to point the finger at the fires,” he said.
Not all of the particulate can be blamed on California, though, Mendenhall said, because several wildfires have been burning in Utah as well.
In its weekly wildfires report, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands said Tuesday that with drier air this weekend, “smoke from the California wildfires will make its way back into Utah.”
There have been 1,144 wildfires in Utah so far this year, the division said, including 86 in the past week.
It said 871, or 77%, of those fires were human caused.
That’s compared with 488 human-caused fires at this point in 2019 and 567 the year before.