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Mike Terry, Deseret News
The view of downtown Salt Lake City is obstructed by a thick layer of haze on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — The year's first "Red Day" alert for unhealthy air quality was issued Tuesday for Salt Lake and Davis counties, and the coming days are not expected to bring much relief.

It is anticipated that as the inversion settles in, trapping cold air on the valley floors, some areas such as Cache and Utah counties will go from "moderate" to "unhealthy," according to the state Division of Air Quality.

The bitter cold temperatures coupled with frozen snow on the ground combine to fuel the condition, which means motorists should do all they can to limit driving, vulnerable residents such as children or the elderly should avoid prolonged exertion and, in "Red" counties, igniting a fireplace or wood burning stove is prohibited.

"Believe me, when we have these prolonged inversions and Red Air days, neighbors will report their neighbors burning," said state Department of Air Quality spokeswoman Donna Kemp Spangler.

Fed up with the annual wintertime gunk that settles over the Wasatch Front, residents are becoming more proactive and are more likely to tattle on their neighbors should they see smoke curling from the chimney, she added.

While it may be tempting to stoke the kindling to stave off the below-freezing temperatures, Spangler said compliance with "no burn" days is critical to helping curb harmful emissions.

"We have smoke patrol people who go out," she said, stressing that while citations have been issued, the department is more interested in taking an educational approach rather than being punitive.

The cold is expected to be parked along the Wasatch Front throughout this week, with nightly temperatures well-below freezing and dipping into single digits in some areas. Even daily "highs" won't inch past the above-freezing mark until Saturday, when the chance of precipitation climbs.

As Utah's "nonattainment:" pollution zones continue to garner national attention and state air quality regulators work to reduce emission levels, Spangler said the public is ramping up to curtail their pollution impact.

A campaign that joins efforts of the state Department of Environmental Quality with transportation officials alerts motorists about reducing travel and to "drive smarter," Spangler said.

"If you don't have to drive, don't."

Such public education campaigns, in part, are credited with helping to reduce the number of "Red Day" Alerts issued last summer for ozone levels, which constitute another air-quality challenge faced by Wasatch Front residents.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com