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Health, Science & Environment
Keep up with the latest news about wildfires in Utah. If you have tips or questions, contact Lexi Peery at lpeery@kuer.org.

Salt Lake County Saw More Bad Air Days This Summer Than Usual Due To Large, Out Of State Wildfires

A photo of smoky SLC.
Lexi Peery
/
KUER
Salt Lake County had 50% more days rated as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” or worse this June and July compared to the past six years according to a KUER analysis of federal data. In August, wildfire smoke from California descended on SLC.

It’s been a smoky summer on the Wasatch Front.

A KUER analysis of federal data found compared to the past six years, Salt Lake County had a pretty typical number of days during June and July when air quality was rated as “moderate” or worse. But there were 50% more days when air quality was “unhealthy for sensitive groups” or worse.

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Even though Utah’s fire season has been relatively calm, bad air has blown in from nearby states.

“There have been a number of these large wildfires [in other states] that have either lasted or overlapped over about a two month period this summer,” said Bryce Bird, air quality director with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “And so the smoke impact has been relatively constant. It seems like no matter which way the wind is coming from, there has been a fire upwind from us that has brought that smoke into our area.”

Wildfire smoke can lead to health issues like burning eyes, a runny nose and bronchitis. It can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases including COVID-19. Utah DEQ advises people to limit time outside to prevent these health issues.

“All of us can look outside and see that our air is bad,” Meisei Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. “Not everyone has the luxury of staying inside. There are families and individuals who have to work outside to support themselves and their families. And these individuals are feeling the brunt of the air quality and are more prone to have health issues due to the exposure.”

Gonzalez said Utah needs to make it easier for low income people to access healthcare they might need to deal with complications from breathing in smoke. That includes improving public transportation so people can get to doctor appointments more easily, and lowering the cost of healthcare.

The widespread consensus of climate scientists is that climate change makes large, destructive wildfires more likely because of hotter temperatures and drier vegetation. That leads to worse air quality, so Gonzalez said addressing climate change is an environmental justice issue.

“We're seeing the reports that [climate change] is worsening,” Gonzalez said. “With that worsening, these communities are also going to be seeing more of the brunt.”

And because of that, he said state and federal leaders need to do more to curb climate change.

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