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Wildfire smoke poses increasing health threat in Utah, experts say

SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah and the West experience more severe and frequent wildfires, health risks caused by particulate pollution are becoming more serious, environmental experts say.

And with temperatures in northern Utah hovering around 90 degrees, concerns of potential wildfires are rising with the thermometer.

"We had a particularly bad year last year. And during that year, we really did see an impact on local air quality, and in my own experience as a pulmonologist, I heard lots of complaints from my patients," said Dr. Robert Paine, director of University of Utah's Program for Air Quality, Health and Society.

"Normally, during the summer we have pollution problems with ozone, but we don't have much trouble with particulate pollution," he noted.

While other sources of pollution are declining in the U.S., some say wildfire pollution is setting the West's air quality back.

In the midst of health risks, Western states and cities have been preparing to face another summer of hazy skies, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, researchers continue to work to understand the health effects caused by exposure to smoke pollution.

In the past, Utah has typically seen increased particulate pollution during the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day from fireworks, or when wind blows dust from the western desert, Paine said.

But last year, 486,063 acres in Utah burned during wildfires, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

"With the wildfire smoke last summer, we also had pretty significant levels of particulate pollution that resembled what we get sometimes in the inversions in the winter," Paine said.

Wildfire smoke, however, is different than winter inversion pollution. It contains particles of the same size but has different components, according to the doctor.

"If you just take the smoke apart and measure things, you've got an enormous number of molecules that can cause adverse health effects," he said.

The most immediate health effects the particles in wildfire smoke can trigger include heart attacks, asthma attacks and worse breathing in those with chronic lung diseases.

"We know that these same kind of particles can contribute to increased rates of pneumonia," Paine added.

Atmospheric researchers from Yale and Harvard said that over the next 30 years, more than 300 counties in the West will see more severe smoke waves from wildfires, sometimes lasting weeks longer than in years past, the AP reported.

According to researchers at Colorado State University, long-term effects of chronic smoke exposure are causing an estimated 20,000 premature deaths per year and that number could double by the end of the century as summers become increasingly hotter and drier.

In Utah, local fires cause dense smoke in some areas. The state also is downwind from many other fires.

"Even neighboring states' fires can actually, depending on the wind direction, it can blow in the smoke and can make it really hazy here. … (But) we're mostly impacted by those fires that are in state and it really kind of depends on where it's burning and where the wind direction is going," said Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

"If you're near a fire and you're breathing in that soot and those tiny particles, they can get lodged in your lungs," she said. Those who live near wildfires are urged to keep their doors and windows closed.

Traditionally, Utahns somewhat "turn off worrying about particulate pollution during the summer" but more wildfires and smoke blowing in "really is having to change how we think about this. We're no longer one season for particles in the winter and one season for ozone in the summer," Paine said.

"I think that many of the same things we tell people during inversions in the winter, we're going to have to start telling them in the summer," according to Paine.

People who fall into susceptible groups, including young children, pregnant women, elderly people, and those with heart or lung diseases, will increasingly be asked to pay attention to the air quality and limit their exposure when the air quality is poor during the summer, Paine said.

"We need to recognize, where everyone stands politically on climate change and what causes it. Climate change clearly is going to drive more Western wildfires in the United States, whether it's human-caused or not. So anything we do to prevent it would be good."

Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, emphasized that people can do their part by being careful with fireworks and campfires.

"Especially as we enter into the Fourth of July holiday, we are constantly concerned that people aren't going to make the best decisions as it relates to their fireworks. That could lead to any number of different wildfires here in Utah," Carter said.

After the poor air quality due to wildfires the last two summers, Carter said, "we hope that this doesn't become the norm, but we have to prepare for it. We have to be aware of it."

"I think people need to take responsibility, and we think people need to take responsibility for their emissions base and reduce their emissions base so when things happen like wildfires, whether they come from a lightning strike or they come because of human mistakes, we need to just be aware that we can be somewhat responsible for our own health," Carter urged.

Derek Mallia, a postdoctorate atmospheric science researcher at the U., thinks the increase in wildfires can be combatted in Utah by clearing dead vegetation that allows fires to "burn hotter," echoing what lawmakers urged last year. Several Utah state parks have since held prescribed burns to clear vegetation.

According to the AP, while Utahns are threatened by smoke exposure, residents of Northern California, western Oregon, Washington state and the northern Rockies are projected to suffer the worst increases in smoke exposure, said Loretta Mickley, a senior climate research fellow at Harvard.

"It's really incredible how much the U.S. has managed to clean up the air from other (pollution) sources like power plants and industry and cars," Mickley said. "Climate change is throwing a new variable into the mix and increasing smoke, and that will work against our other efforts to clear the air through regulations. This is kind of an unexpected source of pollution and health hazard."