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Wildfire smoke chokes Bay Area, creating worst air quality in the world

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 8/20/2020 By Aidin Vaziri and Anna Buchmann

Wildfire smoke cast hazy red skies over the Bay Area on Wednesday, creating a seriously unhealthy atmosphere and adding to the region’s pandemic-heightened anxiety. Ash fell over many counties. Kids locked out of school remained shuttered indoors. Families evacuated homes.

Atmospheric testing revealed Northern California’s air quality to be the worst in the world.

Smoke from multiple fires polluted the air, sparking a renewed concern for residents with respiratory issues, including those suffering from COVID-19.

“Somebody who already has a cough or is struggling with shortness of breath, the worst thing they can do is be exposed to particulate matter from the smoke,” said Tom Dailey, chief of pulmonary medicine at Kaiser’s Santa Clara Medical Center.

“It’s not just the smoke, but we’re in the middle of a heat wave,” Dailey said. “It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pot of water. It keeps the pollutants close to the ground.”

Bay Area Air Quality Management District authorities issued a Spare the Air alert through Sunday, recommending Bay Area residents stay inside if possible with windows and doors closed until smoke levels subside.

“The air quality will be very poor for the foreseeable future given rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass,” the Bay Area arm of the National Weather Service tweeted.

Cal Fire battled a series of furious, complex fires that defied even partial containment, Gov. Gavin Newsom told a news briefing.

The biggest by far were the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Solano counties — which exploded from 46,000 acres to 124,000 by nightfall, burning down houses in Berryessa and Vacaville and jumping Interstate 80 and threatening homes in Fairfield. It was 0% contained.

The SCU Lightning Complex burned 85,000 acres in Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties and was 5% contained.

The CZU Complex fires, burning in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, consumed 10,000 acres by Wednesday night. They were 0% contained.

And there were many more.

“We thought we’d seen it all, and then 2020 hits us,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “They’ve always said that Mother Nature can pack a real punch. She’s hitting back pretty hard at this moment.”

Of particular concern was the SCU Lightning Complex.

“The SCU Lightning Complex fire is still not even remotely contained,” Kristina Chu, acting communications manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said. “That’s causing the biggest amount of smoke in the Bay Area.”

The worst air quality readings in the Bay Area for fine particles as of 1 p.m. were in Pleasanton, Livermore, Redwood City, Gilroy, San Jose, East Oakland and downtown San Francisco, where air quality was rated unhealthy.

The advisory means that anyone with pre-existing respiratory issues should limit all outdoor activity. If you smell smoke, “go inside, close windows and doors, and make sure they’re sealed,” Chu said.

While there is no clear connection yet about the effects of wildfire smoke on COVID-19 patients, experts can look to research on smoking and air pollution to draw preliminary conclusions.

“Wildfire smoke is kind of like tobacco smoke without the nicotine,” said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UCSF and environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley. “It’s plant-based material that, when burned, produces carbon particles with nasty hydrocarbons that are toxic.”

He used the 2018 Camp Fire as an example. That blaze caused fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 particles to travel from the northern part of the Central Valley to the Bay Area. A thick haze blanketed the region for weeks, shutting down schools and businesses.

Dailey encouraged anyone experiencing health issues related to the smoke to go to a hospital.

“The COVID epidemic has really prepared hospitals across the state for people with respiratory illnesses, ” he said. “We don’t want this, but these hospitals are ready and prepared. People who are having problems shouldn’t hesitate to come in and seek assistance.”

Experts say cloth coverings and surgical masks used to slow the spread of coronavirus do not offer protection against wildfire smoke.

“Everybody right now is under a mask order for COVID,” Chu said. “However, any mask that is not an N95 or higher will not do anything to protect you from PM2.5 particles from wildfire smoke.”

Even those with N95 masks should make efforts to avoid the smoke.

“I see people jogging with an N95 mask, and they just don’t get it,” Dailey said. “It means 95% of the particles are kept out, but you’re still inhaling 5% of them. We want people to stay indoors. Do not exercise. The masks are for those who cannot avoid being out of doors.”

San Francisco Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax said there were no immediate plans to shut down the city’s outdoor testing facilities on account of the current air quality, which vacillated between “orange” and “red” throughout the day. A “red” designation is considered unhealthy.

“If somebody doesn’t have a particular need to be tested, this might not be the week to do it,” said Dailey.

Chronicle staff writers Kate Galbraith, Kellie Hwang and Dominic Fracassa contributed to this report.

Aidin Vaziri is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: avaziri@sfchronicle.com

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