Smoke gets in Summit County’s eyes |

Smoke gets in Summit County’s eyes

Reid Williams

SUMMIT COUNTY – Haze from wildfires covered the county from north to south Friday, blanketing the mountains as high as 14,000 feet, and one local doctor is recommending Summit citizens stay inside.

Although smoke has been visible in the High Country for two weeks, Friday marked an unprecedented concentration of airborne particulate matter, according to fire and medical professionals. With wildfires raging in all directions outside Summit County, the smoke could get worse.

“You’re going to see smoke off and on for a while, especially since the Durango fires are burning so hot now,” said National Weather Service forecaster Scott Entrekin, who added Friday’s smoke was the combined result of all the state’s fires. “There’s going to be a southwest flow that will continue to bring varying amounts of smoke in the next few days.”

Entrekin said that, for the smoke conditions to change, winds would have to shift to the north and northwest and capture cleaner air from non-fire areas.

The smoke is making it difficult to sort out real fires from suspected fires for local fire departments. Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District public information officer Kim O’Brien said the department receives numerous calls each day from concerned residents who have spotted smoke. She said the department sends out crews daily to patrol remote areas and look for trouble.

“This (smoke) isn’t making it any easier,” said O’Brien.

In addition to presenting challenges for those working under it, the smoke makes the job difficult for pilots flying through it. Flight For Life helicopter pilot Glenn Uchiyama said his visibility is limited to between 5 and 10 miles, depending on the day, and “the higher you go, the worse it is.”

When Colorado’s wildfire smoke first began coalescing on the Front Range last week, Flight For Life was forced to divert two flights because of low visibility. Uchiyama said pilots have had better luck this week, but they’re watching weather forecasts and fire updates daily in expectation of changing conditions.

“It becomes a challenge at night, especially if there’s no moon,” Uchiyama said. “Fortunately, right now, it’s waxing.”

Dr. William Silvers, an asthma and allergy specialist, keeps an office next to Uchiyama’s landing pad at Summit Medical Center and said the smoke is causing health problems for many. Silvers said high pollen counts were bothering allergy and asthma sufferers already, and smoke conditions are exacerbating symptoms such as stuffed-up noses, sneezing and itchy eyes.

“But the problem is, even with non-asthmatics and people without allergies, (the smoke) is causing a tremendous reaction,” Silvers said. “These conditions are unprecedented.”

Silvers recommended everyone stay indoors as much as possible. For people who must be outside, the doctor suggested taking along eye drops and salt-water nasal spray. He also advises purchasing a high-efficiency particulate air filter to use in the home, since most Colorado houses aren’t equipped with air conditioning and air filters.

“Something small they can move into the bedroom at night is a good idea,” Silvers said. “Our usual recommendation is just to avoid outdoor exposure, but we (in Colorado) don’t like to do that for a long time. But these are unusual circumstances. And the longer the particulate matter remains in the air, the more irritation people will feel.”

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