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Following fires, NorCal air quality still suffers

A wildfire burns near Fallbrook in San Diego County on July 26. (Photo: Randy Miramontez)

After more than two weeks straight of heavy smoke blanketing Northern California from multiple wildfires, some residents got a bit of a break this week.

Blue skies began to reappear from Sacramento to the Sierra and “good” to “moderate” air quality ratings returned, replacing the previous alarming “unhealthy” ratings.

But Michelle Mead, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said residents shouldn’t let their guard down just yet.

“The fire danger is quite high,” she said. “The heat we’ve had is continuing to dry things out. What fire likes is fuel, which we have plenty of.”

Smoke socked in communities more than 100 miles from the burn sites.

Heading into this week, there were still about a dozen fires burning throughout the state but firefighters are making progress getting them under control.

As of Thursday, the giant Mendocino Complex fire, which has burned 363,845 acres (the biggest in the state’s history) was about 64 percent contained. The deadly Carr fire, which has burned 215,368 acres near Redding, was 69 percent contained. The Ferguson fire, which has burned 96,824 acres near Yosemite National Park, was 87 percent contained.

Smoke socked in communities more than 100 miles from the burn sites. In a Twitter post on Monday, the Weather Channel said that wildfire smoke from Western fires was being detected in the majority of the U.S. states.

Summer wildfires have always been a part of California but they are now happening over a longer period of time. Mead said fire season used to run from the beginning of August to the beginning of October. But in recent years, they have started earlier and lasted longer.

Last year’s fire in Sonoma and Napa counties was in October and the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was in December.

“It’s basically a year-round problem in California,” Mead said. “There is no such thing as fire season in California.”

“We should all be aware of the smoke and take it seriously.” — Dr. Najeh Ahmad

Dr. Najeh Ahmad, a family medicine physician in Roseville, said wildfire smoke is most worrisome to those with asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, heart disease, the elderly and children.

But high levels of smoke can cause respiratory problems for everyone. He advises people to check air quality conditions on airnow.gov, which was developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others.

“We should all be aware of the smoke and take it seriously,” he said.

People who visit the website can type in their zip code and learn current air quality conditions. If the air is listed as red (“unhealthy”) or higher (the worst rating is brown for “hazardous”), people should stay inside, close windows and doors and turn air conditioning on if possible to “recirculate.” They should drink plenty of fluids and shower in the evening to get rid of damaging particulate matter from the smoke.

For those without air conditioning, Ahmad advises going somewhere where it is available like a public library or a mall.

Those who experience coughing, trouble breathing, stinging/irritated eyes, headaches, fatigue or a fast heart beat should leave a smoke area immediately, Ahmad said.

Ahmad said it is unknown what the long-term effects of smoke exposure are on otherwise healthy people. “We know it does increase the risk of respiratory infections for everyone.”

“If you deposit lots of air pollution in their lungs when growing, they don’t grow as well.” — Anthony Wexler

He said that in areas exposed to wildfire smoke, there is an increase in physician visits, emergency room visits and hospitalizations.

Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, said California is experiencing a warming trend because of climate change. “Unfortunately, the summers are dry,” he said. “When it’s hotter, there’s more evaporation from water from plants, they are more dried out and more susceptible to these fires.”

He urged people to be especially careful in protecting children from wildfire smoke because their lungs are still growing, they are usually spending more time outdoors and breathing in more particulate matter. Children should be directed to indoor activities like basketball and indoor soccer during times of intense smoke, he said.

He said there is extensive research showing that children who are exposed to heavy air pollution damage their lungs for life.

“The lungs are going to grow in a certain way,” he said. “If you deposit lots of air pollution in their lungs when growing, they don’t grow as well. As an adult you are permanently damaged.”


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