Foul air: Smoke brings worst soot readings ever recorded
The Bay Area is suffering through the most acrid and smoke-fouled air in its history this week, as the Wine Country wildfires drive residents indoors, close schools and libraries, and force the cancellation of airline flights, weekend festivals and sporting events.
“The air quality is unhealthy pretty much everywhere in the region,” said Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the ninecounty Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “Our advice is stay indoors and close your windows and doors.”
The air district on Thursday extended its smoke health advisory for the region through the weekend, the first time in its history that it has issued such a long advisory. Smoke concentrations in the North Bay on Monday and Tuesday soared to the highest levels the Bay Area pollution district ever has re- corded.
In the Bay Area at 2 p.m. Thursday, pollution readings were on par with readings the
same time in Beijing, a city where runners regularly don air masks that turn gray from soot after just a few kilometers.
The Bay Area even looks similar, with the region’s air quality district planning to distribute 20,000 air masks to its own staff and others at risk.
Overnight sea breezes provided short-term smoke relief for some areas. San Jose air quality that was rated as unhealthy Wednesday afternoon was upgraded slightly Thursday morning to unhealthy for sensitive groups, according to an online air pollution map called Air Now.
But the respite was sporadic and may not last long. On Thursday morning, air quality was rated as unhealthy for much of the North Bay, East Bay and Peninsula.
Pollution experts said smoke conditions can change rapidly as wind conditions shift. The earliest hope for big relief is Monday when breezes from the south are expected to arrive, blowing smoke away from the Bay Area, pollution forecasters said.
In the meantime, Ray Troper, of Danville, walked his dog Puck in his neighborhood Thursday morning because he has noticed the smoke this week worsens as the day progresses.
“I can definitely smell the smoke. It’s bad,” Troper said, “but’s it a lot worse in the afternoon. I tried to do some yard work in the afternoon yesterday, and gave up quickly and went indoors because it was so bad.”
Anyone who has underlying asthma or chronic illness needs to take extra precaution, said Genevieve Palmer, a pedia- trician in Alamo for John Muir Health.
If the smoke dissipates over the next few days, most people will be fine, she said, but if it continues into weeks, people will have to make significant changes in their daily routines that involve outdoor activities.
West Contra Costa, Antioch, and other K-12 and college districts around the area ordered schools closed Thursday and Friday due to the bad air quality. Holy Names University in Oakland posted a message on its website Wednesday warning that classes would close beginning 6 p.m. Wednesday until noon on Friday. Further information, it said, would be available Friday.
Schools that did not close were keeping kids inside for recesses and physical education, and some canceled outdoor activities.
Donald Rheem Elementary in Moraga postponed its annual fall carnival, and Palo Alto Unified canceled all outdoor activities and field trips. In Orinda, the parks and recreation department canceled youth soccer practices Thursday, and the city’s farmers market will not make its usual appearance Saturday.
Sunday Streets in Berkeley was also canceled, and organizers instead asked people to donate to fire relief efforts.
A series of high school and college sports contests were also canceled, includ- ing this weekend’s home men’s and women’s soccer contests at the University of San Francisco. Cal and Stanford’s football teams, however, insist their weekend games are a go.
More than 100 flights were canceled Thursday at SFO.
Although the air pollution district encouraged people going outdoors to use N95 respirator masks to protect themselves from the bad air, they also cautioned that the masks should not be considered a fail-safe substitute for staying indoors in filtered air.
John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek has seen a few additional patients with respiratory problems, but not a big surge, said spokesman Ben Drew, but he cautioned that could change.
“We are preparing for a surge in the coming days if the air quality continues to be so poor,” he said.
People around the Bay Area could be seen wearing facemasks as they rode bicycles or walked outside. The demand for the respirators has been so great that local stores have been selling out of them. At an Orchard Supply Hardware store in Pleasant Hill, people were picking up boxes of respirator masks Thursday morning.
“I’ve seen about a dozen people here buying masks,” said Bay Point resident Frederick Martinez, who was at the store buying some for himself Thursday morning. As he spoke, others were filing in to buy masks by the box. Some shoppers said they had tried other stores that had already sold out.
The Wine Country wildfires are producing this impact because of their unique, concentrated nature. Smoke is pouring into the greater Bay Area in a compact flow like a blast froma barrel— rather than a wide stream stretched across a vast area.
“We are used to wildfire smoke that is diverse, like fromthe wildfires near the California- Oregon border earlier this year,” said Tom Flannigan, an air district spokesman. “This smoke is in a narrower stream.”
Air is considered hazardous when it reaches a soot reading of 301.
According to online soot readings, the Bay Area’s highest score this week was 486 in southern Napa at 8 a.m. Tuesday, more than three times the 151 measurement that is considered unhealthy.
Hazardous or unhealthy air soot levels also were recorded this week at monitoring stations in Vallejo, which registered 333 on Wednesday; San Pablo with 256 on Tuesday; and Concord with 225 on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, Oakland recorded a soot level of 176, San Jose registered 181, and Livermore registered 151. The smokiest air by midday Thursday was a 329 reading at 1 a.m. at southern Napa.
Smoke from the fires in the North Bay turns the sunset an eerie red Thursday in Alameda. Bay Area air quality is historically bad.
Oscar Perez, right, photographs a smoky sunrise from atop Napa Valley’s Grape Crusher statue Thursday, as the devastating Wine Country fires continue to burn.