USA — Smoke cast an unseasonable gloom from Abilene to San Angelo, dimming an otherwise beautiful spring day and raising air quality concerns.
Andrea Morrow, spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said being downwind of the Wildcat Fire in northern Tom Green County and the Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire northwest of Abilene is “analogous to a campfire.”
“Generally, with a wildfire situation, you’re dealing with brush and vegetation,” she said Friday. “People with respiratory issues should probably stay indoors where air is filtered until it abates.”
Dr. Stephen Seifert of the San Angelo-Tom Green County Health Department agreed.
“The air quality, as much as you can smell the smoke and soot in the air, for most people it’s not a hazard,” he said Friday morning. “As bad as it is, it probably doesn’t even rank as close to pollution levels in big cities. The biggest thing would be not to get too alarmed, too worried about it.”
Dr. Zane Travis, medical director of the Abilene-Taylor County Public Health District, said Friday that smoke is only one of the air quality issues, which includes dust, allergens such as pollen from the mountain cedar, and dryness.
“The farmer out in the field trying to plow, with the winds and the smoke and the allergens, might consider a mask,” he said. “People with normal respiratory systems might notice a little irritation. I haven’t seen a lot of trouble from smoke itself in Abilene. It looks more like dust than smoke, and I’m sure it’s mixed.”
The San Angelo Independent School District decided to take precautionary measures late Friday morning.
“Due to adverse air quality conditions, all SAISD outdoor athletic activities have been canceled today,” the district of 14,000 students announced on its website.
Seifert said people with pre-existing breathing conditions are the greatest concern.
“If they are concerned or feel like the smoke in the air is affecting their asthma, the best thing to do is wear those particulate masks. You see people wearing them when mowing,” Seifert said. “Or stay inside, where the air conditioning will filter those particulates. That should filter out 99 percent of the problem.”
Dr. Mark Davis of San Angelo Community Medical Center said Friday morning that the emergency room had not seen an increase in people reporting respiratory problems, but he expected to see an influx later in the day and today because of the smoke in the air.
“People with conditions like asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema could experience a worsening of their condition,” he said in a phone message.
The doctor, who is board certified in emergency medicine, also said people with sinus problems could see an increase in sinus issues.
Davis advised people on prescribed inhalers or nebulizers to use them faithfully and said prescription nasal sprays could alleviate sinus symptoms but he said people should avoid decongestant nasal sprays. He also said it is important to stay well-hydrated.
Janis Alexander, physician assistant in pulmonology at Shannon Medical Center, said the hospital had seen a recent increase in pulmonary complaints.
“Over the past two to three weeks, when the wind started blowing and the dust started picking up, we’ve had an increase in pulmonary complaints such as asthma exacerbations and chronic bronchitis exacerbations,” she said. “From the smoke that started the past couple of days, not so much.”
Travis said dry air also is a respiratory irritant.
“The humidity level in Abilene was 4 percent yesterday,” he said. “The lower the moisture, generally the more irritating it is. This is the time to think about a vaporizer or humidifier. I don’t see any relief anytime soon.”
Alexander also said people with the most severe lung conditions should stay indoors, if possible.
“We haven’t really seen that a mask does any good because the particles are so small,” Alexander said.
She urged people to pay attention to their symptoms.
“If they notice that they’re coughing more, wheezing more or having to use their rescue medications more, they need to call their medical providers,” Alexander said. “When people are out in this, they may think they’re not having symptoms and they’re fine but it can take 12 to 36 hours for symptoms to manifest.”
Travis of Abilene and Morrow of TCEQ said they didn’t expect the smoke to linger, once the fires are contained.
“It’s not like we’re in a stagnant valley like Los Angeles,” Travis said. “The winds are a mixed blessing as far as the smoke is concerned it blows in the mountain cedar and aggravates the fire but will dissipate the smoke pretty quickly.”
Morrow said the TCEQ monitors air quality continuously, checking levels of particulate matter and ozone.
“It’s going to be fairly acute right near the fire. It’s not going to be acute farther away because it disperses pretty quickly,” she said. “You’ve got agricultural burning in Mexico contributing as well.”
She said firefighters have the greatest exposure but have equipment and training to use it.
“Certainly, people who are fighting the fire need to take precautions, but they usually do,” she said.