Stay inside today if you can — maybe even over the weekend.

Both Utah air quality regulators and the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City warn that the air you breathe is getting extremely unhealthy, fueled by drifting West Coast wildfire smoke and building ozone pollution.

The weather service said breathing air filled with wood or wildfire smoke is extremely bad for your lungs, causing potential damage. It can also lead to birth defects, nerve damage and more.

While a cold front moving in on Friday will bring relief from the heat, the weather service says it is setting up the perfect conditions for increased smoke, declining air quality and reduced visibility.

Wildfires from the West have produced huge columns of smoke that have drifted as far east as New York, creating some of the worst air quality that state has seen in 15 years.

Regionally, most states in the West are being impacted by wildfire smoke from California and Oregon. The western part of Montana is reporting poor air quality, as is the Lake Tahoe region in Nevada and portions of Idaho.

“The whole Northwest is pretty smoky right now,” said Braden Cluster, an air pollution forecaster with the Utah Division of Air Quality.

The world is on fire — literally

Cluster said monitoring stations are picking up some extreme values of fine-particulate pollution — the kind that plagues the state during the winter months.

Air quality in multiple counties — Utah, Salt Lake, Tooele and Davis — was downgraded to unhealthy by the DAQ earlier Friday because of the high amount of fine-particulate pollution. Salt Lake County was at 75.8 micrograms per meter-cube at 2 p.m. The federal threshold is 35.

“We are seeing pretty alarming PM2.5 numbers in some of these countries this morning,” Cluster said. “PM2.5 concentrations are going up so fast we decided to upgrade some of those counties to unhealthy.”

Other counties may join that category.

And, he added, the 1-minute values are off the charts. A monitoring station in Murray picked up a 1-minute reading of 324. Other sites are measuring triple-digit readings as well.

Cluster said conditions will only get worse as the day goes on and those conditions are unlikely to improve until at least Tuesday, when the winds shift to southerly.

“The way the winds are happening right now, they are pulling all that smoke toward us,” he said.

Smoky air hangs over Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Doctors warn of health issues due to smoke

Health officials put out an urgent plea for people to be aware of how potentially deadly the air quality is, and the threats it poses.

Dr. Denitza Blagev, an Intermountain Healthcare pulmonary physician, said conditions are dreadful.

“This is among the worst air pollution we’ve had this summer. So at this point, the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. That really would recommend people reassess if they have plans, especially over the weekend or today, for hiking or biking or outdoor exercise.”

It’s “unhealthy for everyone, not just children, not just older people, not just sensitive groups, but really, the air pollution, the PM2.5 particulate concentration is high enough that even people that don’t have underlying disease would be at risk for complications.”

That includes COVID-19, she said, especially with the dominance of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus in Utah. 

The smoke in the air increases the chances of catching COVID-19, Blagev said.

“We’ve seen that not only for COVID, but also other viral infections and respiratory infections and pneumonia. So high levels of air pollution and air pollution exposure increase the risk of getting a pulmonary infection, including COVID.”

She said periods of high pollution and air pollution exposure really increase the risk of pneumonia and bronchitis, adding that “having this degree of air pollution increases our susceptibility to getting COVID. Having that in the middle of the delta surge is really unfortunate.”

Bad air also increases the risks of heart attacks and strokes, she said, putting additional strain on hospitals already reaching capacity as COVID-19 continue to climb.

Cloth masks may not provide much protection against the tiny particles clouding the air outdoors, she said, although medical-grade N95 masks or KN95 masks are effective against air pollution.

She advised Utahns to make sure they have fresh air filters in their homes, and said that unlike winter inversions, heading up into the mountains doesn’t mean leaving the unhealthy air behind.

Dr. Robert Paine, chief of the division of pulmonary with University of Utah Health, said this particular brand of woodsmoke pollution is even more deadly than the type of fine particulate pollution Utah experiences in the winter because of its chemical makeup.

While Utah has done well to tamp pollution over the years, this onslaught of wildfire smoke is intense and beyond the state’s control.

“We don’t have control from what is blowing in from the West.”

He emphasized that high school football teams should not be practicing and pregnant women should take precautions because studies have proven that pollution exposure affects unborn children.

Drought, fireworks, wildfires, oh my! What Utahns and the West need to know about summer 2021
Smoky air hangs over Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Smoke prompts calls to emergency dispatch centers

Multiple emergency dispatch centers reported being swamped by callers concerned about the smoke and worried about local fires being the culprit.

Centerville police in Davis County issued a tweet this morning about the smoke, as did the Sandy Fire Department, Summit County, Salt Lake police and the governor.

While Utah has not experienced any mega-wildfires this season, last month Utah Gov. Spencer Cox warned that the fire season is far from over and begged residents to remain vigilant.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality warned in a series of tweets that Friday is a “red” mandatory action day due to poor air quality.

Wildfire smoke from the West makes for some awesome sunsets, but the pollution is deadly.
The sun sets over Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Utah air quality regulators say smoke from the West Coast will bring significantly lower air quality to much of Utah Friday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

If people do have to get out and about, the agency said residents should do what they can to avoid contributing more emissions such as carpooling, telecommuting, trip-chaining and fueling up with Tier 3 gasoline, which reduces a vehicle’s emissions greatly.

Motorists can go to a specially designed website to learn which gas stations offer the fuel.

Ozone is ground level smog that gets in the lungs and causes respiratory issues. It is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Industrial activity and traffic contribute to ozone pollution values.

The federal standard for ozone is 70 parts per million. As of 2 p.m. Friday, Salt Lake County’s level sat at 53 parts per million.

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