The Pine Gulch Fire burning 18 miles north of Grand Junction reached 87,209 acres as of Tuesday morning, making it the fourth largest fire in Colorado history and prompting concerns about air quality for the area.
With the entire state in a drought, there are currently five fires burning in Colorado for a total of 130,248 acres, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. The burns prompted a statewide 30-day ban on open fires announced by Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday as well as renewed concerns for public health.
Just as the heat brought the fires, so have the fires brought the smoke.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s daily air quality tracker, readings for fine particulate matter in the air show current levels reaching a 20-year-high for Grand Junction. PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) is an air pollutant that is a concern for people’s health when levels in the air are high.
Purple Air monitors across the valley show several days above 150 AQI (Air Quality Index) at locations in Palisade and Grand Junction. At 150-200 AQI, everyone may begin to experience health effects if they are exposed for 24 hours and members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
Mesa County Public Health Regional Epidemiologist Thomas Orr said the wildfires have resulted in some of the smokiest conditions he’s seen in Grand Junction.
“It’s higher than I have ever seen it, absolutely,” he said. “The sustained levels with these wildfires... I’m sure those who live closest to it are quite affected.”
The smoke outlook report showed air quality to be unhealthy for sensitive groups for the entire region for Tuesday and today, with worse conditions expected in Silt and New Castle on Tuesday and more moderate conditions for Meeker and Craig today.
An air quality health advisory was issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment at 2:20 p.m. on Tuesday for Mesa County, with Fruita, Grand Junction, Palisade and De Beque all expected to be affected.
Orr said that although the strong winds have made operations difficult for firefighters, they’ve actually helped with the smoke.
“We’ve had fairly good smoke dispersal but we expect fire activity to continue,” he said.
The smoky conditions create unique challenges for health officials, who are six months into a global pandemic involving a respiratory disease.
Some symptoms, like dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing can be caused by both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. However, some symptoms, like fever or chills, muscle or body aches and diarrhea are not related to smoke exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Anyone with severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, should seek immediate medical assistance.
Those at the most risk from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke are: children under 18 years old, adults 65 or older, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions such as heart or lung disease, asthma or diabetes and outdoor workers. People who have or who are recovering from COVID-19 may be at increased risk from wildfire smoke.
“Poor air quality can often cause COVID-19-like symptoms and if you are experiencing respiratory issues, please get tested. It may be the poor air, it may be COVID-19 or it may be the flu,” Gov. Polis said at Tuesday’s media briefing.
PINE GULCH TUESDAY ACTIVITY
The Pine Gulch Fire is expected to reach critically dry fuels on Tuesday, according to fire officials, with smaller fuels at about 2% moisture content. Larger fuels and heavy logs in the Pine Gulch area are at 8%. For comparison, printed paper is at 6% moisture content.
On Monday, Large Air Tankers and Very Large Air Tankers flew in the northern division of the fire, laying down retardant to slow the fire spread, according to Tuesday’s Pine Gulch Fire update.
Fire activity also persists on the southwest side. The steep and rugged topography with heavy fuels, narrow canyons and unsatisfactory escape routes have made it not safe for firefighters to enter directly. Therefore, crews are working with roads and the natural landscape to help the fire spread to south and southwest.
Residents southwest of the fire are expected to see increased smoke activity. Nighttime fire glow may also be visible from Grand Junction.
Because of the increased fire activity north of Fruita, additional road closures were ordered Monday, including 21 Road north of the Bureau of Land Management boundary, 16 Road at V 8/10 Road and the Q 5/10 Road at 18 Road.