Smoky skies across Utah County are leading to tough days for people with respiratory issues.
Intermountain Healthcare InstaCare facilities saw an increase in people with respiratory issues Thursday, an increase that is not typical for this time of the year.
Utah Valley Hospital’s pulmonary clinic also saw an increase in calls from patients and questions from patients coming in for appointments. The Provo hospital did not have anyone admitted due to the bad air as of Thursday afternoon.
A couple of people were treated at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem for asthma flair-ups due to the smoky air, as of Thursday afternoon.
Smoky air from the Coal Hollow Fire has filled Utah County as the fire grew to more than 17,208 acres, prompting evacuations in rural communities as firefighters have worked to contain the fire east along U.S. Highway 6 to the south near Clear Creek Road.
Southern Utah County registered in the red, or unhealthy, zone for air quality Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Countywide, the hazy air registered in the orange zone on the air quality index, or unhealthy air for vulnerable groups like elderly or infants.
“The fires, the prevailing winds and the pressure system play into the spread of that particulate pollution,” said Donna Spangler, the communications director for the department.
Particulate pollution is made up of dark, microscopic particles like smoke or soot that can cause lung damage with constant exposure over long periods of time.
While health officials expect increased bad air quality during winter inversions, the recent wildfires can prove unpredictable and harmful for residents living near the affected air.
“If you’re close to the fire, you’re close to the smoke. And if you’re close to the smoke, you’re close to the pollution,” Spangler explained.
The smoke is driving some with asthma out of the state. Andrea Jensen, a certified asthma educator with the Utah County Health Department, said one participant in her program was discharged from the hospital Wednesday and has since left Utah to get to cleaner air.
“It’s real, and it affects a lot of people,” Jensen said.
She said many people are experiencing headaches, sore throats and burning eyes from the poor air quality.
Jensen, who has asthma, was able to smell the smoke from inside the Utah County Health Department’s building and planned to use a standing air cleaner or go home to deal with the poor air quality.
She recommended people stay indoors, keep doors and windows closed, use the recirculating air setting in vehicles and to check the cabin air filters in their cars.
For people with asthma, she recommended they take their daily control medicine.
“This is not the time to be skipping a dose,” Jensen said.
Those who experience breathing problems should call a doctor.
She recommended that if someone is wondering if they should go to a hospital, they should go.
“This isn’t anything you should wait on,” Jensen said. “It can get bad to worse very quickly.”
There are also many ways community members can prevent the air quality from getting worse, like avoid mowing the lawn with gasoline-powered equipment or letting a car sit idling, Spangler said.
Carpooling to work, avoiding drive-throughs and using air-conditioning systems less often are also ways to reduce air pollution.
“Utah does enjoy healthy air most of the time of the year,” she explained. “People aren’t necessarily being exposed yearlong to really bad air, but there are these times when we do need to pay attention and recognize that we need to protect ourselves.”
Wearing a mask can also offer protection from the bad air, but simple surgical masks amount to the same protection as using a scarf. Residents should look for masks that specifically filter out air pollution, Spangler added.
“When there are these kinds of conditions from the smoke, you can’t really escape it,” she said.