Wildfires in the West: More than a million acres burned in California; I-70 reopens in Colorado; poor air quality creates COVID-19 concerns

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest wildfire news in the West. Here is the latest for the week starting Aug. 24, 2020. Photo courtesy of Colorado Public Radio.

Wildfires continue to threaten much of the West, destroying structures, prompting evacuations, and impacting air quality across the region.

In California, over 700 separate fires have been reported, according to CNBC, resulting in at least seven fatalities so far. The blazes have consumed an estimated 1.3 million acres, leading the state to deploy more than 15,000 firefighters and more than 2,500 engines. Crews from Washington, New Mexico and other western states are lending a helping hand as well.

As of Aug. 26, firefighters had reportedly contained 33% of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano, and Yolo Counties; 25% of the SCU Lightning Complex Fire in Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara and Stanislaus Counties; and 19% of the CZU Lightning Fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties.

Colorado is also dealing with several wildfires, including the Grizzly Creek Fire, which as of Aug. 27, is 32,302 acres in size and 61% contained, CPR News reports. Previously, the blaze had closed I-70 through Glenwood Canyon for two weeks, however the roadway was reopened on Aug. 24.

The 135,958-acre Pine Gulch Fire, now just 3,000 acres from becoming the largest fire in state history, is at 53% containment. Also in Colorado: the 22,845-acre Cameron Peak Fire is still at 0% containment and the 11,992-acre Williams Fork Fire is at 5% containment.

In Oregon, the human-caused Indian Creek Fire has smoldered 49,139 acres as of Aug. 24, with 20% containment, according to The Oregonian. Although the incident is by far the largest in the state, several smaller fires have erupted as well, many of which were ignited by recent lightning storms.

Residents near Arizona’s Tonto National Forest were ordered to evacuate earlier this week, as the Griffin Fire grew to more than 38,000 acres, AZ Central reports. As of Aug. 25, the fire (32% contained) was threatening primarily brush and vegetation, as opposed to structures.

In Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, a fire burning approximately three miles from Old Faithful has grown to 763 acres as of Aug. 25, according to Oil City News. The fire, sparked by lightning on Aug. 22, has led to the closure of a handful of roads and trails within the park.

Neighboring Montana has its own fires to contend with, including an incident in Madison County that forced the closure of U.S. Highway 287 for a brief period of time. Additionally, Utah and Idaho are dealing with a handful of minor blazes, many of which are either approaching or have already been contained.

Air Quality Concerns

Beyond the immediate damage posed by these fires, experts are also worried about their impact on air quality, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. According to USA Today, wildfires emit a type of particulate matter known as PM2.5, which penetrates deep into the lungs and can cause a host of health problems. 

“The concentration of the tiny particles (PM2.5) in the Bay Area is roughly five times the daily average limit set by the EPA. It's worse in the Bay Area now than mega cities like New Delhi, which are known for poor air quality,” said Coty Jen, assistant professor at the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “Even healthy people are reporting headaches, bloody noses, etc., during this current smoke event.”

Moreover, there is concern that PM2.5 exposure could increase susceptibility to COVID-19.

“The smoke alone induces a lot of asthma, bronchitis, COPDs (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), so it gives a lot of acute effects that take place right away,” said Dr. John Watson, an expert on air quality measurements from Nevada’s Desert Research Institute. “That’s just going to weaken the whole system. You’re going to be more susceptible to any other disease just because your system is already overtaxed.”

To combat these risks, the Air Resources Board recommends that residents remain indoor with their windows shut and the air conditioning running in the “recirculate” setting.

Click here for the latest wildfire updates in your state.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated weekly)

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