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Wildfires leave haze across the West

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DENVER — Smoke from wildfires raging across the West has created fiery sunsets, shrouded mountains and deserts in a gray haze and triggered respiratory warnings in several states.

From Idaho to Colorado and Nevada, skies appeared as hazy as a smoggy day in downtown Los Angeles, causing residents to sneeze, snuffle and rub bleary, red eyes.

"I shouldn't even be out in it," Regina Harrison said as she supported herself with a walker on a downtown street in Salt Lake City. "Whenever I can, I put a Kleenex in front of my face."

In parts of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming, health officials warned children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems to limit their time outside.

The haze is part of a 20,000-foot-thick cloud of ash particles as small as the specks that twinkle in a sunbeam, said Tom Schlatter, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder.

It is slowly rotating above an area at least 1,500 miles in diameter, where it will remain suspended until the jet stream shifts direction and moves the stagnant air out of the area, meteorologists said.

The high-pressure system settled over the West in mid-July as wildfires burned in several states.

"It's bothersome because we can't see the mountains," said Jim Whitson of Albuquerque, N.M., as he ate popcorn on a downtown Denver bench. "That is what we came here for."

At least 35 large wildfires are burning in nine states, scorching about 660,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, feeding more particles into the cloud.

In most areas, the cloud is so high it does not threaten people's health. But in areas near the fires, stagnant air is allowing smoke to linger near the ground.

Ground ozone particles reached 156 parts per billion in Bountiful, Utah, and 144 parts per billion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, levels unheard of since July 7, 1989, said Neal Olson, an environmental scientist with the Utah Air Monitoring Center. Officials consider anything above 125 parts per billion as unhealthy.

Olson said the hazy air was particularly bad for young children and people who suffer from asthma.

"It stinks," said Federal Reserve Bank security guard J.W. Clark as he walked in downtown Salt Lake City. "It smells like someone's burning up my backyard."

Utah State Forester Art DuFault said the air reminded him of Los Angeles' notorious smog.

Spectacular sunrises and sunsets have been one benefit of the ash cloud, which filters out almost all light except for red and orange.

"They're really something," Schlatter said. "I've been getting up extra early just to watch the sunrise. It's this big red globe coming up every morning."