Wildfire smoke blankets Tetons

Tourists take in what would typically be an uninterrupted view of the Teton Range on July 14 from the Snake River Overlook along U.S. Highway 191 in Grand Teton National Park. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Air Quality Division, and the Wyoming Department of Health issued air quality alerts Thursday and Friday for wildfire smoke. Despite a respite over the weekend, the smoke that has hazed skies, obscured vistas and clouded throats doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon.

Visitors come to Jackson Hole to see the Tetons, but last week the Cathedral Group disappeared. The first day, Apple weather attributed the lack of visibility to “haze.” But if you stepped outside the ashy scent of smoke indicated the real culprit.

Smoke from fires across five neighboring states flooded into Wyoming, cutting visibility and making outdoor exercise potentially hazardous. The Wyoming Department of Health issued alerts Thursday and Friday, cautioning Teton County residents to limit their exposure to the dangerous air particulates, which entered the “moderate” zone during that period.

St. John’s Health is seeing an increase in pulmonary clinic patients with new shortness of breath. The smoke is also exacerbating pre-existing lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Some of those patients include long-haulers recovering from COVID-19 infections, local pulmonologist Dr. Haven Malish wrote in an email to the News&Guide.

“When increased smoke inhalation, such as from the recent fires, is thrown into the mix, it creates the perfect storm,” Malish said.

He also said shortness of breath can indicate a heart or lung issue that was previously unknown.

Indoor air purifiers can lower the risk of respiratory health effects, as can well-fitting KN95 masks.

But masks filter out only particulate matter, not gaseous pollutants like ozone. Wildland fires fill the air with both.

Cheryl Prugh, a pulmonologist at the University of Utah, has seen a direct impact of the smoke in her patients. Those with lung diseases are reporting increased difficulty breathing. Those with asthma are increasingly requiring hospitalizations.

“Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants, many of which are harmful to human health,” Prugh said.

Studies show exposure to poor air quality, even in the short term, can increase the risk of death. Malish said he works with his patients in advance to give them a plan to manage their activities to limit such risks. Air pollution has also been shown to increase the spread of respiratory infections and viruses like COVID-19.

It’s not clear if that’s what contributed to the most recent spike in coronavirus cases in Teton County (see related story 24A).

“Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of air pollutants, many of which are harmful.” — Cheryl Prugh university of utah

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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