Foul air: Smoke brings worst soot read­ings ever recorded

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By De­nis Cuff andAn­nie Sciacca Staff writ­ers

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.

LAURA A. ODA — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Smoke from the fires in the North Bay turns the sun­set an eerie red Thurs­day in Alameda. Bay Area air qual­ity is his­tor­i­cally bad.

KARL MON­DON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

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