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Smoke in the air keeps Coloradans alert

June 20, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013 at 7:29 am
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photo - A smoke filtered sun sets over the scar of the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Flying W Ranch Thursday, June 20, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
A smoke filtered sun sets over the scar of the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Flying W Ranch Thursday, June 20, 2013. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

911 call centers were bombarded with calls Wednesday from people reporting smoke in El Paso and Douglas counties, but there were no new fires. The smoke traveled into the area from several other blazes around the state, with the help of constant, gusty winds.

Ron Hanavan , public information officer with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, said its 911 dispatch center received approximately 100 calls of smoke reports Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Concerned callers were not reporting new fires, so the Douglas County Regional Dispatch Center issued a statement at 10:30 p.m. clarifying that heavy smoke from the Lime Gulch Fire in Jefferson County had traveled into the area and asked citizens to report only fires, not smoke.

"I think people are on a heightened awareness," Hanavan said. "In hindsight, that's a good thing. People are reporting constantly because they want fires to be addressed."

In spite of the sudden increase in calls, Hanavan was sure that the call centers handled them efficiently.

Residents in the area, however, expressed concerns with health hazards and complications from the heavy smoke presence and poor air quality.

Chris Dann , public information officer with the Department of Public Health and Environment, said the agency has issued air quality and health advisories since last week, when the Black Forest fire grew exponentially. Dann said he felt the effects of the smoke from Black Forest as far as Parker.

"In the morning, when the winds were blowing from the north and the east, it would be clear up here," Dann said. "Then in the afternoon, the winds would shift and blow from the southwest, and the air would get very smoky and thick. We could definitely smell Black Forest."

The impacts smoke from a wildfire vary from day to day, even throughout the day, Dann said. Wind directions and speeds play a big part in air quality and smoke saturation, so the DPHE has meteorologists that work around the clock, monitoring weather and wind conditions. The department uses its website, http://www.colorado.gov/airquality/ , to make up-to-the-minute information available to everyone.

"We issued a smoke advisory last night at 11 p.m.," Dann said. "This is a 24-hour operation for us."

Smoke and poor air quality create health concerns for people with respiratory conditions, the elderly and children under the age of seven, Dann said.

"For the general population, smoke is typically a nuisance, but for people with respiratory conditions, smoke can really trigger symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing and watery eyes," Dann said.

Local hospitals said they did not see an increase in hospital visits because of Wednesday night's thick smoke, though police scanner traffic did indicate a number of medical calls regarding smoke-related respiratory problems.

Both Penrose-St. Francis and Memorial hospitals said they didn't see an unusual number of patients. One person was admitted to Memorial after he said the smoke enhanced his asthma, according to a charge nurse.

"With the Black Forest fire last week we didn't see a rush, either," said Chris Valentine, a spokesman for the Penrose-St. Francis Hospital Services. "Last year, with the Waldo Canyon fire, we didn't see an increase either."

Reducing physical exertion to keep breathing in the smoke is key, as well as moving indoors temporarily while air conditions are bad. Closing windows and doors temporarily to keep smoke out also helps.

"But you don't want to stay inside too long, either, because that causes health concerns as well," Dann said. "When conditions clear up, get that air moving in your house."

The crisis in Black Forest and Royal Gorge have inspired a collective urgency when it comes to fires, but Dann and county officials agree that the results are positive.

"Our noses can smell the smoke in really low concentrations, so people need to pay attention to what they're seeing, smelling and feeling," Dann said. "Our advisories are going to confirm what people already know."

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