Smoke and haze hang over the Moab Valley, obscuring traditionally blue skies. Images in distant vistas—even the La Sal Mountains—can be difficult to see. People may feel irritation in their eyes or have trouble breathing when outside. The culprit is clear: wildfires raging throughout the West.
With more than 100 blazes burning in nearly every direction, figuring out exactly where the smoke is coming from is a challenge. According to an article published by High Country News, fewer wildfires have started this year compared to the ten-year average, but they’ve burned much wider. Thus far in 2018, 4.8 million acres have been burned, 1 million more than the January-to-July average.
Fires in Utah have certainly contributed to the smokiness, but National Weather Service Meteorologist Monica Traphagan claims the severity of the smoke is due to out-of-state fires. “We did have some contributions from the fires around here, but that’s how it got so bad,” said Traphagan, “[the wind] was pulling in that smoke from California.”
California has had a particularly destructive fire season this year. At least nine people have died in two separate blazes. The Carr Fire near Redding has claimed the lives of two firefighters and five others, while destroying 1,600 structures, which makes it the sixth most destructive fire in the state’s history. The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park has killed two people, injured 11 others and prompted an indefinite closure of some of the park’s most popular areas. The Mendocino Complex Fire burning around Clear Lake in the northern part of the state is yet to injure anyone, but it nearly doubled in size over the past weekend. On Aug. 7, CNN reported it is now the largest fire in California history. The Mendocino Complex Fire consists of two fires -- the Ranch Fire and the River Fire – that combined to burn 290,692 acres and destroy 75 residences. It is 34 percent contained. More than 14,000 firefighters are battling 16 fires all over California.
An article published on Aug. 6 on KSL blames the California fires for bad air conditions in northern Utah. Given the high pressure, low winds and dry conditions, they expect the smoke to persist for the rest of the week. The Salt Lake Tribune warned Salt Lake Valley residents to stay indoors. The Utah Division of Air Quality rated air in northern Utah counties as moderate for particulate matter, which can make breathing difficult, especially for children and senior citizens. In an Aug. 6 article, the Salt Lake Tribune quoted Donna Kemp Spangler, spokesperson for Utah Department of Environmental Quality, saying, “You don’t want to spend a lot of time outside.”
While Moab’s forecast shows clearer skies than the Salt Lake valley, residents should still expect smoky skies in the near future. Orion Rogers, director of the environmental health division of the Southeast Utah Health Department, said that since Moab does not have an air quality monitoring center, it is difficult to find data specific to the Moab area. Judging from the most recent smoke map created by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the prevailing weather conditions pulling smoke from the Pacific Northwest into northern Utah also cover the rest of the state. A NOAA air quality map from Aug. 7 shows the southeast corner of Utah as moderate on their air quality index, the same as the Wasatch Front. National coverage has focused on the California fires, but fires closer to home in Utah and just across the border in Colorado are likely also contributing to the smoke clogging Moab’s airways.
Though small in comparison to many wildfires raging in the West, the Carpenter Ridge Fire on the eastern side of the La Sal Mountains is the closest to Moab. According to an official with Moab’s Interagency Fire Center, the blaze started sometime on Aug. 5 due to lightning and burned about 12 acres. The fire is burning above Buckeye Reservoir, just on the Colorado side of the border. A quick response from around 20 firefighters managed to keep the blaze from growing out of control. At the time of publication, the fire was not officially contained.
The Bull Draw fire in the Uncompahgre National Forest north of Nucla, Colo., is the largest blaze close to Moab. As of Aug. 7, the wildfire had grown to 6,926 acres and was 35 percent contained. Also nearby, the Plateau Fire 14 miles northeast of Dolores, Colo., which began on July 22, now covers 5,750 acres and is only 15 percent contained. A helicopter working on the Plateau Fire discovered the West Guard Fire, which proved easier to manage. It burned 1,412 acres but is now 90 percent contained. Firefighters are mopping up and monitoring the West Guard Fire, while others are struggling to prevent the Plateau Fire’s advance up steep, rugged terrain through mixed conifer forest. An Aug. 2 press release from the U.S. Forest Service said, “Because there are so many large fires in the Four Corners, smoke that is visible or is affecting residents is a combination of Colorado and New Mexico fires.”
As for Utah fires, Saturday, Aug. 5 marked the beginning of a new fire in Utah County. The Coal Hollow Fire was sparked by lightning and, aided by the hot and dry conditions, it spread rapidly – growing nearly 1,000 acres in a single day. On Monday afternoon, another fire ignited in Sanpete County. Fire officials say it has already burned an estimated 1,000 acres. It started near Indianola and burned toward the town of Milburn, necessitating the evacuation of 100 homes and more expected. The Dollar Ridge Fire in Wasatch and Duchesne counties has burned almost 60,000 acres, but fortunately is 90 percent contained.
Late-summer monsoons could bring moisture to help alleviate the situation, but prolonged drought and record high temperatures will likely keep fire intensity high into the fall. Smoky skies don’t mean people can’t go outside, but Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality advises those with heart or respiratory issues to avoid strenuous physical exertion and outdoor activity.