Garfield County’s air quality monitoring shifts focus to wildfire smoke health concerns

Smoke is thick in Glenwood Canyon from the Grizzly Creek Fire Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, near Glenwood Springs.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily file photo

Health risks associated with the increasing presence of wildfire smoke in western Colorado during the summer has shifted the focus of Garfield County’s long-standing air quality monitoring program.

Since 2008, Garfield County has had a comprehensive air quality monitoring program in response to concerns about air pollution associated with oil and gas development.

The program was scaled back this year due to the continuing decline in new natural gas development, and a resulting decrease in the concentration of pollutants associated with the industry. Those readings were already below regulatory limits, Garfield County Environmental Health Specialist Ted White said during a report to the county commissioners last week.

But the program has taken on a new purpose because of persistent drought and an increase in wildfires, he said.

“A shift in focus recently has been to help educate the public about air quality during wildfire smoke events,” White said.

During successive summers now, as wildfires have raged across the West, Garfield County has been impacted by smoke, not only from numerous area fires but filtering in from fires in other states.

Early last year, White said he was approached by federal Environmental Protection Agency officials about writing a local Wildfire Smoke Preparedness Plan for Garfield County.

That plan is currently being written with input from other county officials, area fire agencies and municipalities, the Bureau of Land Management and CSU Cooperative Extension, with outreach in the Hispanic community, as well, White said.

The plan intends to focus on ways to better communicate with the various communities in Garfield County during wildfire smoke events, he said.

Air quality readings from the county’s monitoring program, plus images from a real-time visibility camera stationed on top of the Rifle Branch Library, are regularly posted to Garfield County Environmental Health’s Air Quality web page.

Of particular concern when it comes to wildfire smoke is Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and ozone levels.

PM 2.5, which can be easily inhaled and cause respiratory issues, is the chief concern during smoke events, White said.

“Nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions from fires can also lead to increased ozone levels,” he said. “The worst levels we’ve seen in recent years were in the unhealthy range for sensitive groups; mainly people with asthma and heart conditions.

“We greatly encourage people to come to our website and look at the current air quality index (AQI) during wildfire smoke events to help determine what their healthy level of activity should be that day.”

If the readings are at the orange level, high-risk groups are advised to stay indoors that day, he said.

The county has also invested in several low-cost Purple Air monitors, which are situated along the major transportation corridors in the county and within municipalities.

“We do have the option to relocate them to areas of need during wildfire events,” White said.

Those readings are automatically posted to the Purple Air website [], which is another useful site to visit on days when visibility is low due to wildfire smoke.

Air quality monitoring also measures PM 10, which are the larger particles, such as ash from fires, that contributes to haze.

“From a health standpoint, though, we are more concerned with the PM 2.5,” White said.

During 2021, the county’s air quality monitoring included a site to measure for ozone and meteorological data at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.

Two Rifle monitoring sites, which will continue this year, are located at the Rifle Library and on top of the Garfield County Public Health building.

Battlement Mesa has been home to the county’s mobile air monitoring unit since 2016, which was more geared toward VOCs, nitrogen oxides, methane and PM 2.5 associated with natural gas drilling activity.

That monitoring site is being discontinued this year due in part to decreasing concentrations, which were already consistently below regulatory limits, as well as budgetary cuts, White said.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or

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