416 Fire north of Durango impacts air quality in San Juan County

Officials encourage people to use visibility to gauge air quality

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Smoke from Colorado forest fires rises beside the La Plata Mountains on Monday in Farmington.
  • People should avoid using swamp coolers when there is a lot of smoke in the air.
  • Inversions created unhealthy air quality conditions Monday morning.

FARMINGTON — Cedar Hill, Aztec and Flora Vista residents woke to a thick layer of smoke this morning.

The smoke from the 416 Fire north of Durango, Colorado, settled into the Animas River valley over the night. It extended into Farmington and other parts of the county, but was thickest in low areas near the Animas River.

Smoke from wildfires, including fires that may be far away or in neighboring regions and states, can degrade local air quality, according to New Mexico Department of Health spokesman Paul Rhien.

The inversions are caused when cooling evening and early morning temperatures bring smoke from the atmosphere down into the valleys, according to the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management.

Rhien said the smoke can hurt eyes, irritate respiratory systems and intensify chronic heart and lung problems.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency map showed northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado in the hazardous air category early Monday morning. The hazardous air quality conditions dissipated throughout the day. The map can be seen at AirNow.gov.

Mick O'Neill rides his bike Monday up College Boulevard in Farmington. Health officials warn people to check air quality levels at AirNow.gov before engaging in outdoor activities when smoke is in the air.

Rhien said visibility is the best way to gauge air quality. He said if there is less than five miles of visibility due to smoke people should take precautions, such as keeping windows closed.

If people cannot see more than five miles due to the smoke in the air, the air quality is unhealthy for young children, senior citizens, pregnant women and people who have heart disease, lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illnesses, according to the department of health. The department of health cautions those people to minimize outdoor activities when visibility is less than five miles. If the visibility is about three miles, those people should avoid all outdoor activities.

If visibility is about one mile, the state department of health warns the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. It suggests remaining indoors and avoiding all outdoor activities, including running errands.

Public health officials say some air coolers, such as swamp coolers, have filters that will not block smoke particulate and can actually bring smoke into a structure.

Rhien said people should avoid using swamp coolers when smoke levels are higher than normal because the pore size on the coolers' filters are too large to filter out particles from smoke.

"The typical rule of thumb is if it smells like your swamp cooler is bringing in smoke from the outside, it’s best to turn the unit off until the outside air quality improves," Rhien stated in his email. "When using automobile air-conditioning, make sure to put it on recirculate to avoid pulling air from the outside."

People who own HEPA room air filtration units are encouraged to use them to clean the air inside their houses. Rhien referred people to a YouTube video produced by the University of Michigan Health System about building a do-it-yourself air purifier with a HEPA filter.

People can also create 'clean rooms’ inside their house, according to Rhien. He said they should choose an interior room with as few windows and doors as possible. They should keep all windows and doors closed into that room.

Smoke from Colorado wildfires was in the air Monday in this view from West Navajo Street.

San Juan Basin Public Health — the public health agency serving Archuleta and La Plata counties in Colorado — issued tips for dealing with bad air quality. It states neither surgical masks nor damp cloths will filter out smoke particulates. San Juan Basin Public Health recommends facepiece respirators or respiratory protection devices with the ability to filter N95 and P100 particulates. These respirators can be found at hardware stores.

When air quality improves, San Juan Basin Public Health suggests opening windows to air out houses, such as in the afternoons.

San Juan Basin Public Health also encourages people to avoid smoking, vacuuming or using candles when air quality is bad.

Sara Garcia, right, and Dereanna Beyale play Monday at Berg Park in Farmington. Health officials suggest checking air quality readings at AirNow.gov before planning a day at the park due to increasing smoke from Colorado wildfires.

Michele Truby-Tillen, spokeswoman for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, said local residents can expect to see smoke in the mornings. She said how much smoke is in the valleys will depend on the fire and weather conditions.

“I don’t think it’s going to get better until the fire is out,” she said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.