For many Coloradans, this August has been a challenge. A combination of intense hot and dry weather and thick haze has had a massive impact on air quality, wildfire conditions, and on I-70. The larger fires are beginning to reach relative containment (and their growth is beginning to slow), and the air quality is beginning to slowly improve; however smaller fires continue to pop up, smoke from California continues to clog the skies, physical impacts of poor air will continue to be felt for weeks, and while we’re starting to experience some of the cooler weather and rain that we’ve been hoping for – this could cause additional challenges on I-70 and through Glenwood Canyon. In this blog we will give a summary and update of conditions regarding air quality, heat, wildfires, and I-70. Following this post, we will check back in after a few weeks – hopefully then we will have inched even closer to environmental stability.
Earlier this week, CDPHE issued a ‘multiple pollutants’ alert, and strongly urged Front Range residents to consider constructing and occupying ‘safe rooms’ to protect against penetrating particulate pollutants. Health officials have designated the air quality as ‘exceptionally poor,’ as Coloradans are susceptible to the impacts of multiple lung irritants. Since mid-August, more than 30% of Colorado’s 64 counties have undergone Air Quality Alerts that have fluctuated between designations of ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ and ‘unhealthy for everyone.’ Air quality impacts are the worst recorded since a brief spell in 2010.
For much of this month, a thick haze has been blanketing Colorado as wildfires ravage nearly 200 thousand acres; Denver metro’s visibility has hit a level of ‘extremely poor,’ the most severe category available. Health officials have focused most urgently on educating the public about the harm from inhaling tiny ‘particulates,’ which spread in the smoke from burning forests and can easily float inside cars and homes. Particulates are generated as wood and other material breaks down into tiny bits of carbon – less than 2.5 microns wide. Particulates are easily inhaled and cannot be exhaled back out – thus quickly entering the bloodstream – and over the course of a few weeks – causing a cumulative impact that stresses and/or irritates the heart and lungs, can cause headaches and fatigue – and be noticeable for days and potentially weeks even after the smoke clears.
August’s record-breaking heat compounded the challenges. Heat exacerbates the potency of particulates and accelerates the formation of more ozone. At several points over the past few weeks, ground level ozone across the Front Range reached levels of 90 ppb – which is 28% higher than the federal health limits of 70 ppb; the 70 ppb limit has been broken at 11 of the region’s 15 air testing sites. High levels of ozone can also cause acute respiratory problems and asthma attacks. In addition to dangerous levels of ground level ozone and particulates, other pollutants hang in the stagnant haze such as heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, and toxins like sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
While the air quality situation is beginning to slowly improve as some of the larger wildfires reach new levels of containment; it is still advised that all Coloradans (not just children, older adults, and those with asthma – but fit, healthy adults too), stay and exercise indoors as much as possible. “The effects (of being exposed to these dangerous air quality conditions) can have severe impacts on respiratory and cardiovascular systems,” according to CDPHE.
This past month, Colorado has experienced record-breaking heat. As of 8/29, there were 25 different August days where Denver’s temperature rose higher than 90 F degrees. There has also been a record-breaking concentration of extreme heat, as August experienced 15 days over 95 F degrees. In one more record-breaking category, this August has seen 6 days where daily heat records were either tied or broken. Initially, this Summer was not on pace to be record-setting, however there have now been 68 days with temperatures that hit or exceeded 90 F degrees, and there is still ample time to match or break 2013’s record of 73 days with temperatures of 90 F degrees or above. We are keeping our fingers crossed, as temperatures are expected to cool slightly during the next few weeks. Despite the warm conditions and the days of exceptional sunshine (albeit, severe visibility impairment due to wildfire haze), the Summer heat and dryness has made August a challenge. As all Coloradans know, this weather can lead to conditions that precipitate wildfires, accelerate the degradation of air quality, and put enormous stress on individuals’ health.
Grizzly Creek Fire:
As of Friday morning (8/28), the Grizzly Creek Fire had burned 32 thousand acres and was 68% contained, as slightly cooler temperatures and higher humidity have helped the firefighting efforts. Bouts of rain will be expected in the coming days, which, while a good thing, will come with another set of challenges (that we will discuss further below). Currently, 663 personnel are working on this fire.
Pine Gulch Fire:
This past Thursday (8/27), the Pine Gulch Fire grew to become the largest in Colorado history; its impact now reaching 140 thousand acres, pushing it beyond the size of 2002’s Hayman Fire that burned 137 thousand acres. The fire is 77% contained and all pre-evacuation notices west of CO-139 have been rescinded. As of Friday morning, there were still 915 personnel working on firefighting and the rehabbing of burn areas, however as containment increases, some personnel will be moved to support containment efforts on other fires around the state. The fire started 18 miles north of Grand Junction on 7/31 due to a lightning strike.
Cameron Peak Fire:
This fire – west of Fort Collins – has not yet damaged any structures though it is 0% contained and has spread to over 23 thousand acres; it is growing slowly. It started 15 miles southwest of Red Feather Lakes on 8/13 and its cause is still under investigation. CO-14 between Kelly Flats and Gould is closed until further notice, and there are large mandatory as well as voluntary evacuation areas.
Williams Fork Fire:
This fire is 5% contained and has spread to 12 thousand acres; it is also growing very slowly. It started on 8/14 and unfortunately, investigators are seeing indications that it was human-caused.
I-70 through Glenwood Canyon:
I-70 reopened this past Monday following a two week closure – its longest closure ever. CDOT is advising motorists that there will be occasional and sometimes unpredictable closures for safety and tow allow crews to begin repair work. The length of closures will depend on how the next few weeks go and what geological experts see happening on the vulnerable canyon walls. In the meantime and in addition to the potential for closures, motorists will encounter reduced speeds, head to head traffic, and emergency vehicle traffic. Rest areas are closed, bike paths are closed, and Hanging Lake is closed. While the canyon has undergone tremendous and unfortunate change in the past few weeks, and is likely to attract those hoping to catch a glimpse of the impacts – stopping in the canyon is prohibited; please bring patience and allow for extra travel time.
This has been a really rough month for I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. It has so far emerged relatively unscathed, but the situation is still insecure and there are some immediate impacts to discuss. As expected, the Grizzly Creek Fire burned trees and loosened rocks – leading to conditions that make landslides, mudslides, and rockslides far more likely than before. Sporadic rain (bittersweet – for the canyon at least) is in the forecast for the next week; according to research hydrologist, Jason Kean, with the US Geological Survey in Golden – just 2/10 of an inch of rain over 15 minutes (the typical amount during a Colorado thunderstorm), is enough cause severe problems/ “It’s hard to imagine a worse spot,” Kean said, adding that Blue Gulch, near the Shoshone power plant, and Cinnamon Creek, near the tunnel, are likely to be troublesome. Flash flooding impacts are also possible.
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