Routt County has some of the cleanest air in the state with fewer wildfires, more moisture
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County residents can breathe easy knowing the local air quality is among the cleanest in the state.
Experts point to a moisture-heavy spring and early summer, followed by regular monsoonal storms over recent months, as well as a milder wildfire season as primary reasons for the good news.
This comes after Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued several air quality alerts this week for Fremont and Chaffee counties due to smoke from the Decker Fire, which continues to burn near Salida. As of Friday, the blaze had grown to more than 5,800 acres, prompting the evacuation of several neighborhoods.
In the Front Range, which has among the worst air quality in the country, communities are struggling to meet federal environmental standards.
A network of new air quality monitors around Routt County has been tracking the amount of particulates in the air. The first of these monitors was installed about a year ago near the Routt County Courthouse downtown.
Since then, three more air monitors have been installed across Routt County: one in Hayden, one near Oak Creek and one at the North Routt Community Charter School.
Scott Cowman, the county’s director of environmental health, selected these locations to give a comprehensive look at air quality around the area and determine if any changes are localized events or broader phenomena.
As he explained, the sensor near the courthouse sometimes shows a spike in pollutants in the air when other monitors do not show the same increase. One reason for the discrepancy could be the exhaust from a passing truck, which would cause less concern than the more pervasive pollution that comes from wildfire smoke.
The devices measure the amount of pollutants, like dust and smoke, which can cause health problems. It can detect particles that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. By comparison, a strand of hair is typically 70 micrometers in diameter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The more pollutants in the air, the greater the risks for health hazards. Poor air quality is particularly dangerous for those dealing with heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young and the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Data from the monitors is updated online about every 80 seconds, which the public can view by visiting purpleair.com/map. A map on the site also explains any potential health risks that current air quality could have on people who work or play outside in particular regions of the state.
During the summer, pollutants in the air remained minimal in Routt County, with little to no concern for health risks, according to online data.
“You guys have some of the cleanest air in the state,” said Dr. Amber Ortega, an air quality meteorologist with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.
Across the state, she has seen an improvement in air quality compared to last year, when massive wildfires raged in Colorado and in Pacific states like California, blowing plumes of smoke west to Routt County and beyond.
“It’s been an El Niño year, which brought more precipitation,” Ortega explained. “We are pretty fortunate this year that all the rains in the spring and early summer prevented us from having another bad wildfire season.”
Over the past couple of weeks, she and other air pollution experts have seen localized pollution from wildfires, such as in communities in and around Salida, but nothing like in 2018.
Meanwhile, metropolitan areas like Denver and Fort Collins continue to struggle with ground-level ozone, much of which comes from vehicle exhaust, oil and gas extraction and power plants.
Last year, Denver and Northern Colorado’s urban corridor failed to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards. The area has failed to meet such standards since at least 2004, according to a report from Colorado Public Radio.
This summer, Ortega said ozone pollution was better, mostly because of the increased moisture, but experts are still trying to get the metro area in compliance with federal standards.
Having too much ozone at lower elevations, as Ortega explained, over-oxidizes the air, which can cause wear and tear on human tissue and organs.
“If you’ve ever played with an old rubber band, that’s essentially what ozone does to your lungs and mucous membranes in your body,” she said.
Ortega assured that a more rural area like Steamboat Springs is not at risk from ozone pollution.
“You just don’t have enough emissions to pose an ozone threat,” she said.
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