The Marshall Fire burned entire housing estates and shopping malls. Are ashes a threat to air quality?

When Abrams made his first return trip, he noticed piles of ash and soot behind doors and on window sills. He was also bowled over by the thick smell the fire imprinted throughout the house.

“It was just the worst smoke you could smell,” he said. “You could tell there were a lot of bad things in the air.”

A few days later, the father of one of his son’s classmates asked Abrams if he would allow scientists to temporarily take over the house to study indoor air quality. He jumped at the chance to find out more about the impact of the fire.

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Joost de Gouw, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, installed equipment inside an upper house to monitor air quality impacts left by the Marshall Fire. January 12, 2022.

The connection led Joost de Gouw, a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, to pack the Abrams’ dining room with air monitoring equipment. Gas detectors and spectrometers now track the long-term effects of smoke choking inside the home.

“The house acted like a sponge. He really absorbed a lot of those gases. And that’s why we still smell things here because it’s slowly coming off the walls, the furniture, the curtains, the carpeting, a lot of the materials that you have in a modern house,” de Gouw said.

The instruments have already detected high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.

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The Superior home, where researchers are monitoring the lasting effects of the Marshall Fire on air quality, still looks like it did when the family who lives here was evacuated. January 12, 2022.

The plan involves measuring the effectiveness of recommended fixes, such as professional house and duct cleaning. De Gouw also recommends air purifiers with HEPA and activated carbon air filters as well as low-tech solutions, such as opening windows.

In the meantime, Abrams doesn’t plan to return home until scientists are sure the interior is safe – and possibly longer. He worries that efforts to clean up nearby debris could cause even more air pollution.

“I’m really worried about the outdoors,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing for us right now, especially with young kids.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Ashes from the Marshall Fire that blew through an upper house during and after the Marshall Fire. January 12, 2022.

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