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Environment

There's Smoke In The Roaring Fork Valley, But Where Is It Coming From?

Haze from Rim Trail
Alex Hager
/
Aspen Public Radio
A light haze, seen looking downvalley from the rim trail in Snowmass, catches the late-day sun on June 8, 2021.

This summer, smoke and haze have been clouding the air above some parts of the Roaring Fork Valley – but they aren’t coming from fires in Colorado. Instead, smoke blew in from hundreds of miles away. Thanks to wind patterns in the upper atmosphere, recent smoke in the valley arrived from Arizona and Utah.

Andrea Holland, a retired air quality specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, lives in the Roaring Fork Valley and said smoke travels the same way as most other weather.

“Think about how rain and snow and clouds get here,” she said. “Smoke rises up in the atmosphere, and depending on how high it rises and what the winds and weather are doing, it can get carried pretty far away.”

In the past week, haze in the Roaring Fork Valley has largely come from two places – the Telegraph fire near Globe, Ariz., a few hours east of Phoenix, and the Pack Creek fire near Moab, Utah.

It’s no guarantee that smoke from those places will end up in Colorado. Changing wind patterns could blow smoke in any direction.

“Sometimes you’ll have that pattern completely reversed and maybe that smoke goes into Nevada and California,” said Kris Sanders, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. “It’s just dependent on weather systems.”

Summer 2020 Smoke
Alex Hager
Smoke from fires in California hangs over in Aspen in September 2020.

Sanders explained that last week’s smoke was carried by strong westerly winds. Once smoke reaches high enough into the atmosphere, those winds are strong enough to carry particles across hundreds or thousands of miles.

If it gets dense enough, smoke could actually affect the weather – blocking the sun’s rays from reaching the earth’s surface and cooling down the air and water below. This summer’s out-of-state smoke has not been particularly thick or severe, and has not yet had that effect in our area.

Thick smoke can diminish air quality, which can be dangerous if inhaled. Holland says this recent smoke likely did not ever reach a point where it was acutely dangerous for breathing.

She explained that the presence and thickness of smoke in the area can vary, even within small stretches of the Roaring Fork Valley.

“Sometimes it doesn’t just settle in the valley uniformly from Aspen to Glenwood,” she said. “Sometimes it’ll slosh back and forth. It depends on how much smoke there is, what the local winds are like, what the source is, how much smoke there is – there are just so many variables.”

As massive wildfires become more likely across the west due to worsening drought, so too does the chance of seeing faraway smoke settle into our region.