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Clearing the air on New Mexico’s wildfire smoke

Deadly wildfire flames threaten homes and lives every year. As the globe heats up, so does wildfire season. Though smoke points to a fire, we can’t always see where smoke itself is threatening health. And that’s the case with far-reaching wildfire smoke in New Mexico from April through June 2022.

Where are the wildfires in New Mexico?

Two of the worst wildfires in New Mexico’s history burned hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands this spring, kicking off an early western U.S. wildfire season (1).

Two of the worst wildfires in New Mexico’s history burned hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands this spring, kicking off an early western U.S. wildfire season.

The Hermits Peak fire began as a prescribed fire in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. The wildfire combined with the nearby Calf Canyon fire to burn 335,069 acres by June 15 (2). Before firefighters brought the wildfire down to 70 percent containment, residents were forced to evacuate parts of Las Vegas, New Mexico, a small city southwest of the park not to be confused with the better-known city in Nevada.

At times, wildfire smoke drifted west towards Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But prevailing winds mostly blew the smoke east, southeast, and to the south towards rural New Mexico and Texas and away from the state’s major cities.

In southwest New Mexico, the Black fire burned 317,676 acres from May to June and is at 48 percent containment. Burning in the Gila National Forest, the fire blazes through woodlands far from more heavily populated areas. (3).

Rural air quality monitors matter

California experienced its own historic and life-threatening wildfires in the previous season. Unlike in New Mexico, hazardous air quality data was immediately clear in dozens of rural communities.

In 2021, The Dixie fire burned the crest of the Sierra Nevada in rural northern California. Air quality monitoring stations from Medford, Oregon to Redding, California measured unhealthy to hazardous air quality. Air quality from the fire was poor as far south as Bakersfield.

“Unhealthy” air quality was measured from Medford, Oregon

Pictured: “Unhealthy” air quality was measured from Medford, Oregon south to Redding and Chester California in 2021. Source: IQAir

Wildfire air quality threatens us wherever we live – and air quality data can save and lengthen lives.

As the Dixie fire illustrates, air quality monitoring matters for everyone, whether we live in cities, small towns, or in rural places. Wildfire smoke, which can drift for hundreds of miles, threatens us wherever we live – and a dense network of well-dispersed air quality monitors can help us limit our exposure to smoke.

Why does smoke matter so much to human health? An irritant to the nose, throat, and lungs, wildfire smoke carries particulate pollutants like tiny PM2.5, airborne particles measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter. When PM2.5 or even smaller ultrafine particles enter the bloodstream, it can harm every organ in the body.

Was the air quality bad in New Mexico?

The air quality in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico’s biggest cities, wasn’t greatly impacted by the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires. Wind primarily carried smoke into the countryside east and southeast of the wildfire.

However, one city that was in the direct path of both fire and smoke did measure dangerous air quality – Las Vegas. Residents were exposed to hazardous levels of smoke for at least two weeks.

IQAir air quality scientists reviewed the available PM2.5 data for Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas, New Mexico between April 6 and May 22. A single station in Las Vegas helped residents know their exposure to wildfire smoke.

During that time, average hourly PM2.5 concentrations were 3 microns per cubic meter (µg/m3) in Albuquerque and 2 µg/m3 in Santa Fe, measurements within the World Health Organization’s recommended guideline of an annual exposure of 5 µg/m3 or less. Las Vegas air quality reached an average of 13 µg/m3 – almost 4 times the amount of PM2.5 found in Albuquerque and 6 times more than in Santa Fe.

Measured PM2.5 concentrations spiked in Las Vegas, New Mexico

Pictured: Measured PM2.5 concentrations spiked in Las Vegas, New Mexico in comparison to Albuquerque and Santa Fe between April 6 and May 22, 2022. Source: IQAir

Average hourly PM2.5 concentration in Las Vegas, New Mexico rocketed to between 100 and 152 µg/m3 at least 12 times across five different days in April and May.

The contrast in peak exposure to harmful PM2.5 was even more stark. Average hourly PM2.5 in Las Vegas rocketed to between 100 and 152 µg/m3 at least 12 times on five different days in April and May. During the same time period, Albuquerque didn’t rise above an average hourly PM2.5 concentration of 44 µg/m3.

In southern New Mexico, wildfire smoke from the Black fire primarily blew southeast towards Las Cruces, New Mexico – about 90 miles from the Black fire. Between May 14 and June 10, the average hourly PM2.5 concentration in Las Cruces reached 8 µg/m3.

With no air quality monitoring stations or air quality data between Las Cruces and the fire, it can only be speculated how poor air quality was in closer communities.

The takeaway

While we can detect smoke far from fire sources, it’s the air quality data that’s closest to home that informs us so we can appropriately limit our exposure to pollutants. People with no access to air quality data might not even know their health is at risk.

“The stark differences in PM2.5 concentrations in Las Vegas, New Mexico compared to Albuquerque and Santa Fe during this wildfire period really highlight the importance of widespread air quality monitoring and public access to real time data,” said IQAir Air Quality Science Manager Christi Chester Schroeder.

“A single air quality monitor in Las Vegas was able to capture and quantify the severity of PM2.5 air pollution conditions as the smoke plume spread. This information was invaluable, empowering the more than 13,000 residents of Las Vegas with vital information regarding local air quality conditions that had a direct impact on their health.”

The best way to know all of New Mexico’s air quality – including the ranches and small towns far from big cities – is through a dense network of low-cost air quality monitoring devices. Only then can everyone be empowered with the information to act when smoke endangers our health.

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