Smoky mountains, ashy air
Brace yourself for a summer of smoke
Residents of the Truckee Meadows are bracing themselves for the possibility of a full-blown summer of smoke. Westerly winds and more than 800 lightining-caused wildfires in California last week caused hazy skies and bad air quality in Northern Nevada and across the West.
“We’ve had reports of smoke as far east as Wyoming,” says Andy Goodrich, Washoe County director of air quality management. “With almost no precipitation in the immediate forecast and the chance of dry lightning in our area, we could be in a lot of trouble.”
Last week saw the first red alerts in Washoe County in more than three years. Alerts are based on National Ambient Air Quality Standards for seven pollutants. The contaminant with the highest level sets the basis for an alert on any given day.
A rating of 261 points was attained June 25 because of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter—tiny enough to lodge easily in lungs. On a scale of zero to 500, the rating of 261 was 161 percent higher than levels considered safe, and a Stage 2 Air Pollution Alert was issued.
Smoky, ashy conditions can wreak havoc on throats, lungs, eyes and sinuses. “The groups most at risk are the very old, people who already have respiratory diseases like emphysema and asthma, and babies,” said Reno internist Dr. Bill Povolny. At press time, Povolny had already seen several patients with serious complaints about increased irritation to airways but had not admitted anyone to the hospital.
“That’s the big fear—having someone with lung disease get worse because of exposure to smoke,” he says. “Pulmonary specialists and emergency room physicians will see more of these cases when air quality conditions get really bad.”
But smoky skies and unhealthful air conditions don’t just affect at-risk groups. Almost everyone is bothered by the smell of burning biomass or red itchy eyes. People with sinus problems might experience congestive head pain or sinus infections, and people who usually exercise outside may choose to head indoors.
“I had to cancel a ride yesterday, and I’m bummed!” said veteran cyclist Brent Hart last week. He’s lived in Reno since 1992, and he also has asthma. He said he can feel the effects of smoke and ash from regional forest fires in his eyes and sinuses, and when he starts to feel short of breath, all bets are off. “I stay indoors, and I don’t exercise. It’s a waiting game because I know that I would get sick if I went outside and rode my bike when the conditions are this bad.”
That’s the perfect strategy, according to Dr. Povolny. “Stay inside where you can benefit from air conditioning and air filters,” he advised. “Just wait it out.”
“That’s really the thing we’re pushing for these days, is for people to take it easy,” said Goodrich. He said officials are surprised to see so many people jogging and playing outdoor sports when air quality is so lousy: “At these levels, it’s unhealthy even for healthy people.”