Blazing wildfires in and around the northern Nevada region cause air quality concerns among University of Nevada, Reno students and Reno residents.
The summer months in Reno bring hot temperatures and a dry climate. This makes the perfect environment for wildfires and consequently, bad air quality.
This summer, Reno-ites saw their fair share of smoky, overcast days due to large wildfires in California and other areas along the west coast. The wet winter, brought by El Niño, provided the moisture needed for a plentiful amount of native grasses and plants too: the perfect fuel for potential fires.
The northern Nevada and California areas saw over 2,000 fires since the beginning of this year, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center Incident Management’s situation report from Monday, Aug. 29.
Smoke pouring in from these fires and filling our skies can put a serious damper on fun summer activities, as well as training for fall sports and other events on campus.
Air quality in the United States is assessed according to the Air Quality Index. The AQI, produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, is an index which aims to help individuals understand what local air quality means to their health.
In the EPA’s AQI, each color correlates to number ranges from zero to 500, and different health ranges: green is good, yellow is moderate, orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups, red is unhealthy, purple is very unhealthy and maroon is hazardous.
The AQI uses five different major air pollutants to classify the quality of air in a given place. These air pollutants are ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Since the beginning of May, Reno’s average AQI has rested in the moderate yellow range on the AQI’s scale. This level is considered acceptable according to the EPA, though the concentration of pollutants is above standard. This range warns that current conditions may cause moderate health concerns for highly sensitive people.
Matthew J. Strickland, an associate professor of environmental health at UNR notes that the two most common pollutants are ozone and particulate matter or PM2.5.
“Normally, ozone is the pollutant driving the AQI,” says Strickland, “But interestingly, in the month of July, you see both ozone and PM2.5 driving it.”
Wildfires, both in Washoe County and in California, are the reason PM2.5 pollution becomes more common in the summer. Smoke from wildfires is particularly dangerous compared to other pollutants. So far this summer, Washoe County has seen seven days where the air quality did not meet EPA standards.
“Our worst air pollution episode we’ve seen locally [this summer] was when the smoke from lightning-caused fires in Northern California blew into northern Nevada. The AQI reached the unhealthy range”, says Daniel K. Inouye, the branch chief of the Air Quality Management Division in Washoe County.
The WCSD Twitter account notes that the particles found in smoke are 20 times smaller than a strand of human hair, and can easily get lodged in the lungs.
“In all honesty, the air quality I think affected my ability to run,” said Lauryn Massic, a freshman on the University of Nevada’s cross-country team, about training this summer. “It wasn’t major but I would end up having to break for minor coughing fits.”
So what is the best thing to do when our air quality seems to be stuck in the yellow zone?
“Pay attention to it, but don’t overreact to it,” Strickland says. “Most healthy adults and kids can go about their daily lives without problems.”
However, with fire season continuing into the fall and over 11 wildfires currently burning in the Great Basin area, it’s important to pay attention to AQI levels.
“As the days get shorter and cooler, we expect ozone levels to decrease. We can still see wildfire smoke into early fall. In winter, we’ll expect to see higher fine particulate levels from woodstove and pellet stoves, especially when we have cold days/nights and calm winds,” says Inouye.
Information on current air quality levels can be easily accessed online at airnow.gov or OurCleanAir.com. Information is also right at your fingertips on both Twitter and Facebook @WashoeCountyAQ.
Emily Fisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.