Arizona fire spreads, bringing health risks

Associated Press


An eye-stinging, throat-burning haze of smoke spewing from a gigantic wildfire in eastern Arizona is beginning to stretch as far east as central New Mexico, prompting health officials to warn residents as far away as Albuquerque about potential respiratory hazards.

The 672-square-mile blaze was no longer just an Arizona problem Saturday as firefighters moved to counter spot fires sprouting up across the state line and lighting their own fires to beat it back. The forest fire remained largely uncontained, and officials worried that the return of gusty southwesterly winds during the afternoon could once again threaten small mountain communities that had been largely saved just a few days ago.

Levels of tiny, sooty particles from the smoke in eastern Arizona were nearly 20 times the federal health standard Saturday. The good news was that was down from roughly 40 times higher a day earlier, but it was all at the mercy of the ever-changing winds.

Today could get even worse, said Mark Shaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

“Things got better, but they’re still bad,” Shaffer said Saturday.

The microscopic particles, about 1/28th the width of a human hair, can get lodged in the lungs and cause serious health problems, both immediate and long-term, Shaffer said.

“Larger particles, you breathe in and you cough and it tends to get rid of it,” he said, adding that the tiny particles get “very, very deep into your system and are very difficult to expel.”

Shaffer said the forecast for today was “pretty scary.”

“It’s looking very unsettled, and they’re predicting winds out of the southeast to the northeast and heavy impact along Interstate 40 ... It’s very problematic for both states.”

New Mexico officials were continuously monitoring air quality in their state and are advising residents from the Arizona border to Albuquerque to pay close attention to conditions.

“The people we’re most concerned about are obviously those with chronic health conditions, but when air quality gets this bad, it can actually have negative effects on everybody,” said Chris Minnick, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health.

He said the state planned to issue an alert to residents Saturday to take precautions if the smoke gets worse, such as avoiding strenuous outdoor activities, not using their swamp coolers to cool their homes because it will suck the smoke indoors and stocking supplies of needed medications.

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