Fer­gu­son wild­fire near Yosemite, other blazes cre­ate a chal­lenge for pub­lic health

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - Twe­[email protected]­nobee.com

The cen­tral San Joaquin Val­ley has been blan­keted in wild­fire smoke for weeks. That smoke has come from not just the Fer­gu­son fire near Yosemite Na­tional Park, but blazes as far north as Men­do­cino and Shasta coun­ties.

Given the Val­ley’s to­pog­ra­phy and weather — which trap air pol­lu­tion in the hot months — as well as the role of drought and cli­mate change, The Bee asked Samir Sheikh, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the San Joaquin Val­ley Air Pol­lu­tion Con­trol District, whether smoky skies are be­com­ing the new nor­mal for the re­gion dur­ing sum­mer, and what that means for pub­lic health. Here are his an­swers to The Bee’s emailed ques­tions:

Q. Cli­mate ex­perts say that Cal­i­for­nia’s fire sea­son is get­ting longer and that big­ger wild­fires are be­com­ing the new nor­mal. Is a smoky sum­mer of bad air be­com­ing our new nor­mal?

A. Air pol­lu­tion gen­er­ated from wild­fires is enor­mous and can well ex­ceed to­tal in­dus­trial and mo­bile source emis­sions in the San Joaquin Val­ley, over­whelm­ing decades of local ef­forts to re­duce air pol­lu­tion and re­sult­ing in pe­ri­ods of ex­ces­sively high par­tic­u­late mat­ter and ozone con­cen­tra­tions.

Fires have al­ways been a very im­por­tant part of Cal­i­for­nia’s ecol­ogy and are nec­es­sary for the health of our wild­lands. Due to the buildup of com­bustible ma­te­ri­als through decades of for­est mis­man­age­ment, and the mor­tal­ity of mil­lions of trees from drought and bark bee­tle in­fes­ta­tion, the state is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing record-set­ting large wild­fires that are di­rectly im­pact­ing the Val­ley’s air qual­ity and the health of Val­ley res­i­dents.

The district gov­ern­ing board has long ad­vo­cated for re­sources and pol­icy changes at the state and fed­eral lev­els to enhance the man­age­ment of our forests. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased ear­lier this year, “Fire on the Moun­tain: Re­think­ing For­est Man­age­ment Samir Sheikh in the Sierra Ne­vada,” the Lit­tle Hoover Com­mis­sion found that “in­stead of fo­cus­ing al­most solely on fire sup­pres­sion, the state must in­sti­tute wide-scale con­trolled burns and other strate­gic mea­sures as a tool to rein­vig­o­rate forests, in­hibit firestorms and help pro­tect air and wa­ter qual­ity.”

Q. Short of leav­ing the Val­ley when it is so smoky, what can res­i­dents do?

A. We un­der­stand the con­cern of Val­ley res­i­dents and the im­pact this smoke is hav­ing on their daily ac­tiv­i­ties. Dur­ing se­vere wild­fire im­pacts, the district strives to pro­vide timely and health-pro­tec­tive in­for­ma­tion to min­i­mize wild­fire smoke ex­po­sure. The district wild­fire page (www.val­leyair.org/wild­fires) in­cludes spe­cific in­for­ma­tion about cur­rent wild­fires, hourly air qual­ity data, health pro­tec­tive tips and a link to tem­po­rary air mon­i­tors in the moun­tain and foothill com­mu­ni­ties. In re­sponse to this sum­mer’s wild­fires, the district has been en­gag­ing the pub­lic, me­dia, stake­holder groups, schools and county pub­lic health of­fi­cers via com­pre­hen­sive mul­ti­me­dia out­reach to ed­u­cate them on the var­i­ous free tools the district has avail­able for in­di­vid­u­als to stay up­dated on cur­rent air qual­ity con­di­tions and to con­vey steps in­di­vid­u­als should take to pro­tect their health. We is­sue upto-date health cau­tion­ary ad­vi­sories and en­cour­age res­i­dents to stay in­formed of cur­rent air qual­ity con­di­tions in their area by fol­low­ing our Re­al­Time Air Ad­vi­sory Net­work at www.myraan.com or by down­load­ing the Val­ley Air app.

When air qual­ity is at un­healthy lev­els due to wild­fires, we rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing ac­tions (more de­tailed in­for­ma­tion avail­able at www.val­leyair.org/wild­fires):

Limit your out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, es­pe­cially chil­dren and peo­ple with chronic heart and lung dis­eases.

Re­main in­side air-con­di­tioned build­ings. Note: If you do not have an air con­di­tioner, stay­ing in­side with the win­dows closed may be dan­ger­ous in ex­tremely hot weather. In th­ese cases, seek al­ter­na­tive shel­ter.

If you have asthma or other lung dis­eases, make sure you fol­low your doc­tor’s in­struc­tions about tak­ing your medicines and fol­low­ing your asthma man­age­ment plan. Call your doc­tor if your symp­toms worsen.

Q. Put this last month in con­text: How bad has the air been in Fresno?

A. Un­for­tu­nately, as in past years dur­ing wild­fires, Fresno and most of the San Joaquin Val­ley have ex­pe­ri­enced ex­tended pe­ri­ods of poor qual­ity from wild­fire smoke. While PM2.5 air qual­ity lev­els are typ­i­cally the low­est dur­ing the sum­mer sea­son, the wild­fires have caused el­e­vated PM2.5 con­cen­tra­tions. This past month, Fresno has ex­pe­ri­enced daily av­er­age PM2.5 val­ues up to 60 mi­cro­grams/cu­bic me­ter, while sum­mer PM2.5 con­cen­tra­tions in the ab­sence of wild­fires are typ­i­cally much cleaner, rang­ing from 5 to 10 mi­cro­grams/cu­bic me­ter.

Q. Be­fore July, how was the sum­mer shap­ing up for air qual­ity?

A. Through decades of in­vest­ments by Val­ley busi­nesses and res­i­dents to re­duce air pol­lu­tion, the Val­ley has ex­pe­ri­enced a con­tin­ued trend of im­proved air qual­ity. In fact, un­til wild­fires ig­nited in July, the Val­ley was on track to ex­pe­ri­ence the clean­est sum­mer on record. Ini­tial wild­fires im­pact­ing the Val­ley in­clude the Fer­gu­son, Carr, and Men­do­cino fires, with the Val­ley and state now reel­ing from the im­pacts of at least 18 large wild­fires.

Q. How does wild­fire smoke ham­per your ef­forts to re­duce air pol­lu­tion?

A. Wild­fires gen­er­ate mas­sive emis­sions that not only in­clude par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM2.5), but also in­clude ozone pre­cur­sors and other pol­lu­tants. Th­ese emis­sions from wild­fires over­whelm local air pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion ef­forts and when com­bined with the Val­ley’s com­mon sum­mer­time high tem­per­a­tures and stag­nant con­di­tions, cause ex­tended pe­ri­ods of poor air qual­ity. The sig­nif­i­cant air pol­lu­tion from wild­fires im­pedes the district’s on­go­ing ef­fort to re­duce air pol­lu­tion and im­prove the health and qual­ity of life for all Val­ley res­i­dents.

Q. What is the air district’s po­si­tion on con­trolled burns to re­duce fu­els in nearby forests?

A. While there are many fac­tors that need to be eval­u­ated and ad­dressed in the pur­suit of min­i­miz­ing fuel buildup, the district has long been sup­port­ive of fuel re­duc­tion ef­forts, in­clud­ing pre­scribed burns, to counter decades of for­est mis­man­age­ment. The district has long ad­vo­cated that re­duc­ing fu­els in a re­spon­si­ble way will im­prove the health of the forests and im­prove fu­ture air qual­ity by less­en­ing the sever­ity of wild­fires. De­spite th­ese ef­forts, the for­est fuel buildup has con­tin­ued to in­crease at an alarm­ing rate over the years due to mul­ti­ple causes, in­clud­ing the re­cent cat­a­strophic tree mor­tal­ity from the drought and pest in­fes­ta­tion. This long-term buildup of for­est fuel poses a sig­nif­i­cant risk of large-scale wild­fires with po­ten­tial dev­as­tat­ing im­pacts on air qual­ity and pub­lic health. This has in­creased the need and ur­gency for greater for­est fuel re­duc­tions, and con­certed, sus­tained ef­forts and re­sources at the state and fed­eral lev­els will be needed to rem­edy the is­sue.


Dead and live trees are shown Aug. 1 as smoke from the Fer­gu­son fire shrouds the sun in and the sun be­hind a cloud of smoke as Yosemite Na­tional Park.

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