Air quality in Marshall fire burn area similar to areas not affected by wildfire, study finds

A recent study completed at the Marshall fire burn site found that air quality in the area is similar to other urban areas that have not been affected by wildfires.

A preliminary analysis of outdoor air measurements was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in areas affected by the Marshall fire. The study found that levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are comparable to ordinary urban air pollution, according to a news release from Boulder County Public Health.

NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory sampled outdoor air in Louisville, Superior and affected areas of unincorporated Boulder County with its mobile van 11 to 14 days after the Dec. 20 wildfire.

Smoke from urban fires that burn vehicles, homes and other modern structures can produce unhealthy gasses as a result of the combustion of materials, some of which include synthetic or manufactured building materials, furniture, rubber and automotive components, according to the news release.

NOAA is not planning additional outdoor air sampling for VOCs, the release said. The public health department will conduct future measurements and issue warnings if air quality changes.

While health officials expect VOC levels to decrease in the coming weeks, air pollution may remain a concern for several months. Snow and moisture are keeping potentially harmful particulates on the ground and out of the air. As weather changes and temperatures rise, the affected areas will dry out and, when wind speeds increase, air quality can fluctuate, according to the release.

“To ensure affected communities are supported as conditions change, BCPH is developing a range of data collection, guidelines, recommendations, resource referrals and public communications as well as real-time alert platforms in the coming weeks to keep residents informed in relation to air quality, water quality and soil among other environmental health concerns,” Dr. Lexi Nolen, BCPH deputy director, said in the news release.

Residents in the Marshall fire burn area should also be aware of their indoor air quality. Ash and soot from the fire contain VOCs and other harmful contaminants, such as heavy metals, that can linger in homes if not properly removed.

While some websites and weather apps may report air quality to be good or moderate, such sources may be getting their information from monitoring devices that are positioned too far away from the affected areas to provide an accurate reading, the release said.

People with respiratory illnesses are advised to wear N95 masks when in the burn areas. Poor air quality can cause some of the same symptoms as COVID-19. Any person feeling sick, should talk to a health care provider and get tested for COVID-19.

Below is a list of Boulder County Public Health’s general guidance for anyone near the burn area.

  • Have heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts professionally cleaned and replace filters as soon as they appear soiled
  • Use the highest level of filtration recommended by the manufacturer
  • Consider an activated carbon pre-filter to reduce odors
  • Limit outdoor activity during windy days or wear N95 masks
  • Do not disturb ash or debris outside
  • Keep windows and doors closed

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