How to stay safe and understand warnings with wildfires affecting air quality in Routt County |

How to stay safe and understand warnings with wildfires affecting air quality in Routt County

Smoke fills the horizon as a cow grazes in a field off of Routt County Road 52E in North Routt County on Thursday morning.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Residents who signed up for Routt County’s emergency alert system have been getting a flurry of messages and voicemails in recent weeks. 

The alerts warn about potentially dangerous air quality, mostly as a result of wildfire smoke. 

An air quality advisory remains in effect for Routt County until 9 a.m. Friday, according to the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. It calls for moderate to heavy smoke, particularly in Steamboat Springs and Clark, due to the Middle Fork and Mullen wildfires.

“If smoke is thick or becomes thick in your neighborhood, you may want to remain indoors. This is especially true for those with heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young and the elderly,” the advisory reads.

To gauge smoke pollution, officials use the air quality index. The website publishes readings from air monitors across the country, which are updated hourly. People can zoom into Routt County to see the local pollution levels. 

Index values between 0 and 50 are good, 51 to 100 moderate, 101 to 150 unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151 to 200 unhealthy, 201 to 300 very unhealthy and over 300 is hazardous.

First day of October and smoke will be with us again today as Air Quality Advisory in effect through tomorrow morning…

Posted by City of Steamboat Springs – Government on Thursday, October 1, 2020

Around 5 p.m. Thursday, air quality across Routt County was good, with all measurement sites showing pollution ratings at low levels.

Air quality changes often, and it varies across the span of several miles, such as from Hayden to Steamboat, according to Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman. 

On Wednesday, for example, air quality was relatively good in South Routt and Steamboat, but it was much worse in Hayden, Cowman said. Conditions depend on several factors, such as wind direction, wind speeds and fire activity.

There are more air quality monitors than ever, Cowman said, which makes local data more accurate. The monitors cost just a couple of hundred dollars each and are easy to install. 

As of Thursday, private residents had installed monitors near the Stagecoach and Catamount reservoirs and published the readings on This means better data for air quality researchers.

How to estimate air quality based on visibility
  1. Use pre-determined landmarks that were established on a clear day for distances.
  2. Face away from the sun.
  3. Determine the limit of your visible range by looking for targets at known distances (in miles).
  4. Visible range is when an object you can easily see in the distance disappears.
  5. Use the visibility values in the table to determine the local wildfire smoke category.

Source: Routt County Department of Environmental Health

“The more monitors you get out there, the better,” Cowman said.

With air quality of particular concern recently, Cowman’s office recently added some resources to its website. 

One document offers a guide to what level of activity is safe at the respective air quality levels. The guide originally was developed for schools and day care centers, but Cowman said it applies equally well to the general public.

There also is a link to a fire and smoke map, so people can see where smoke is coming from on any given day.

The county has tips for wildfire preparedness, including planning for pets and livestock, at

“We are just trying to give the public as many tools as we can, so they can make informed decisions and do what they need to stay safe,” Cowman said.

Some of the most common symptoms of smoke pollution include burning eyes, runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Symptoms could be worse for people with lung or heart disease.

Those worried about their health should talk with their health care provider, the EPA recommends. Wearing N-95 or P-100 masks can reduce exposure. Residents also can install air cleaners for their home, though the EPA advises against air cleaners that generate ozone, which would just put more pollution into the home.

To receive emergency alerts from the county, sign up at

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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