Smoke lingers in the air, prompts pollution advisories

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 4:57 p.m. MDT

Jeff Bertot runs above the University of Utah. Bad air quality along the Wasatch front Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A unique weather situation has blanketed most of the state with murky, smoke-filled, grey air.

And while most of it isn't coming from Utah's wildfires, the high pressure lurking above the Beehive State is sucking smoke from a handful of fires burning out of control in neighboring Idaho.

Unlike a typical winter inversion, where bad air tends to linger over Utah's valleys, the current situation is much thicker.

"You can't go to Park City and get away from it," KSL meteorologist Kevin Eubank said.

Eubank said the smoky air will stick around the rest of the week, as no major weather events are set to roll through to clear it out. A northern flow will stick around until at least Friday and possibly Saturday, he said, with westerly winds expected to arrive Sunday.

"It'll take something strong to clear it all out," Eubank said.

A handful of human- and lightning-caused fires are burning in central and western Idaho, some of which have spread across hundreds of thousands of acres and aren't expected to be contained until mid- or late-October, according to the U.S. Forest Service's Active Fire Mapping Program.

Unhealthy air quality levels have been reported for areas surrounding Salmon, Idaho, while air in much of the rest of the Gem State remains moderate.

In addition to poor visibility and downright ugly aesthetics, the dense, dirty air in Utah prompted the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to issue pollution advisories Tuesday. Increasing particulate levels means those with respiratory or heart diseases, children and the elderly, must limit their exposure.

"You breathe this in, and it makes you tighten up," said University Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Troy Madsen. "The other thing I'm seeing is that people just get very congested, eyes are watery, and it makes it just that much more difficult to exercise."

Madsen said more patients are visiting the emergency room, as poor air quality impacts symptoms of asthma and emphysema.

Air quality is at "red" alert levels throughout much of northern Utah — in Salt Lake, Davis, Utah, Tooele, Weber, Cache and Box Elder counties. A "yellow" action level was posted for Uintah County, and Washington County remains "green."

In red areas, the Department of Environmental Quality recommends avoiding heavy or prolonged exertion outdoors for sensitive people and reduced exertion for everyone else. Individuals are asked to drive as little as possible during "red" and "yellow" days because cars contribute significantly to the area's pollution, according to department spokeswoman Donna Spangler.

With the lingering pollution, air conditions will remain unhealthy until wind or rains clear it out, she said.

"We're not getting any weather pattern to clear it out, and so it just makes it worse," Spangler said.

More information is available online at www.cleanair.utah.gov.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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