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Wildfire Smoke Billows Into Valley ‘No Matter Which Way The Wind Is Blowing’

EPA AirNow
The EPA's AirNow tool shows wildfire smoke's air quality impacts across California as of noon on September 14, 2020


So far in 2020, thousands of wildfires have torched a record-setting 3.2 million acres in California. If that makes this wildfire season unprecedented, here and throughout the West Coast, so is our region’s resulting smog. In a press conference on Monday, Valley air officials said: Don’t expect the air to clear for at least a few more days, and possibly longer.

According to theEnvironmental Protection Agency’s AirNow tool, air quality on Monday afternoon varied from unhealthy in the southern Valley to hazardous in the north—a range in the Air Quality Index (AQI) from roughly 150 to 300—as a direct result of the acrid smoke that’s been blowing into the Valley by wildfires for weeks.

Jonathan Klassen, director of Air Quality Science and Planning with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said this stretch of bad air has been historic, even in an air basin that routinely ranks among the most polluted in the country. “I don’t think we’ve had a widespread event with this many high concentrations for this prolonged of a period,” he said. “I think we are breaking some records here for air quality in a bad way.”


Klassen shared a map of where fires are currently burning up and down the state’s mountain ranges, then showed a satellite animation of the smoke billowing out of them. “The challenge we’ve been having is no matter which way the wind is blowing, smoke continues to come into the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. “That smoke really gets trapped near the valley floor and we have very high concentrations.”


The most harmful component of the smoke is particulate matter, made up of particles that, once inhaled, are tiny enough to then enter the bloodstream. That means particulate matter doesn’t just exacerbate respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but can have impacts far beyond the lungs.


“It can aggravate cardiovascular disease, it can increase your risk for heart attack or stroke, it’s been tied to dementia,” said air district representative Jaime Holt, especially in children, the elderly, and those with other health conditions. 


The air district is strongly urging people to remain inside, and to use air purifiers or home-made air filters if central air is unavailable.


Outdoors, cloth or surgical masks may be better than nothing, but the best protection comes from N95 masks. However, “we aren’t specifically recommending that everyone go out and get an N95 mask, because there aren’t enough for everyone,” said Holt. “We need to really make sure that those N95 masks are being used by essential workers.”


The state Division of Occupational Safety and Healthrequires employers to provide N95 or similar masks to employees working outside when the AQI exceeds 151, which has happened many times recently on many parts of the West Coast.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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