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The High Street bridge in East Oakland, as seen from a balcony in the Fruitvale neighborhood on Tuesday. Heavy smoke from the Sonoma and Santa Clara fires filled the Bay Area, diminishing air quality and restricting views (Photo by Brian Krans)

Wine country wildfires create hazardous air conditions for Bay Area residents

on October 11, 2017

Wildfires raging throughout California’s wine country have ravaged more than 170,000 acres and killed 21 people so far, with hundreds missing. The blazes are sending a cloud of ash and smoke over the bay, threatening residents with polluted air.

On Tuesday, air quality officials issued health and smoke advisories for all nine Bay Area counties, the second such warning issued this fall wildfire season. Residents should avoid outdoor activities, close windows and doors, and avoid using air-conditioning units, according to the warning.

Additionally, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued a Spare the Air alert, due to dangerous levels of particulate matter that can trigger heart and asthma attacks, or exacerbate other respiratory conditions. The alert is in effect until Wednesday.

“When you have levels that are as unhealthy as we are seeing now, it’s important for everyone to find a way to protect themselves from the smoke or to get out of the smoke all together,” said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman for the district.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency Monday for Napa and Sonoma counties, among others, where 70-mile-an-hour winds fanned some of the largest fires. The Atlas Peak fire north of Napa has burned at least 42,000 acres, and the Tubbs fire near Santa Rosa another 27,000. The Redwood Complex fire in Mendocino County has burned at least 29,000 acres.

Smoke from the fires drained into Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and parts of Alameda and San Mateo counties, where air quality readings reached levels that the Environmental Protection Agency classified as “very unhealthy.”

By early Wednesday, though, readings throughout much of the Bay Area had dropped to moderate levels. But air quality in parts of Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties — the city of Vacaville in particular — was “hazardous,” the highest classification of air pollution.

East Bay students attended classes on Wednesday. The West Contra Costa Unified School District announced yesterday afternoon that they were keeping schools open, but Marissa Glidden, vice president of the United Teachers of Richmond, was frustrated and surprised by this decision.

She said that, in her fifth grade classroom, three students went home with asthma issues on Tuesday, and most students were scared or suffering from headaches. Children are at a greater risk from exposure to air pollution than adults.

The superintendent had left a voicemail for parents and teachers on Monday night, assuring them that they would be taking the necessary precautions, but Glidden said that their response was lacking “It did not feel like a safe school environment. It felt like we were lying to our parents,” she said.

The school district canceled all athletic practices and games, and students were kept inside during recess. But no schools were closed, said Marcus Walton, communications director for the district.

“Even if we were to close schools, we have a population of students who still need support,” Walton said. “So, sending them home doesn’t seem to be a better situation.”

John Sasaki, director of communications of the Oakland Unified School District, said staff and teachers at Oakland schools have been limiting students’ outdoor activities and keeping windows and doors closed if there’s noticeable smoke. He also said they are closely monitoring the students, especially those with respiratory conditions such as asthma.

“I think that some of the kids have felt like they have been exposed to the smoke and haven’t felt well because of it,” he said. There were “one or two instances” of children being picked up from school after being exposed to smoky air on Tuesday, he added.

As of Tuesday, emergency rooms and medical centers across the East Bay had not seen a significant spike in respiratory complaints, though patients at North Bay hospitals, like Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Rosa Medical Center, were transferred to facilities in the East Bay.

Seven patients were sent to Alta Bates’ hospitals (six to the Berkeley location and one to the Oakland), according to Clayton Warren, a hospital spokesperson. Kaiser declined to give the number of patients transferred to its Oakland medical center.

At Kaiser Permanente in Richmond, volunteers said they had distributed far more protective face masks than usual. “In an hour, they were four boxes down just because of the smoke,” said Eleanor Fernandez, a Kaiser Permanente volunteer, who added that she felt “light-headed because of the smoke.”

According to BAAQMD spokesperson Ralph Borrmann, children, elderly, and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions are most likely to be affected. Still, people without respiratory problems also were impacted by the shift in air quality.

“It’s like smoke all over the place,” said Morgan Butler, a Richmond resident. “It was even seeping into the house. It was nasty.”

On Tuesday, the winds died down, and an off-shore breeze increased humidity, allowing firefighters to prevent the blazes from spreading. All of the fires remained active, however, according to Heather Williams, spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The favorable weather will not last long, though. A cold front late Tuesday was forecasted to bring dry, northern winds of up to 55-miles-an-hour, which will fan the flames and send more smoke pouring into the Bay Area.

“There will be a high fire danger again, especially by Wednesday night and Thursday morning,” said Will Pi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“As the winds shift back to the north,” he added, “smoke is going to blow back over the Bay Area. On Wednesday and Thursday, you’re going to start seeing more smoke.”

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