DAISY NGUYEN and SETH BORENSTEIN
Northern Californians were confronted with multiple threats as wildfires, unhealthy smoky air, extreme heat, the looming possibility of power outages and an ongoing pandemic forced many to weigh the risks of staying indoors or going outside.
Ash sprinkled the ground and smoke from several wildfires cast an eerie glow over much of the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday, creating unhealthy air quality and heightening concerns about people most prone to respiratory illnesses.
As the air quality index rises to hazardous levels in some places, the region’s air district and public health officials urged people to stay inside with windows and doors shut until the smoke subsided.
Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a dry scratchy throat and irritated sinuses. Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema or COPD.
“I’m feeling lightheaded and I’m a healthy 30-year old. Imagine what it’s like if you’re an older person or have asthma,” said Kyle Laurentine of San Mateo. “I worry, especially in the COVID-19 era, that we’re in a state of respiratory vulnerability.”
But with a statewide call to conserve energy to avert another rolling power outage, people sweltering in a prolonged heat wave and socked in by smoke must choose between cranking their fans and air conditioners or shutting them down to conserve energy.
“These disasters need solutions that are in direct conflict with each other,” said Jennifer K. Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado. “COVID-19 is forcing us outside to reduce transmission risk while extreme wildfire smoke is forcing us back inside where the air is better. We’re running out of options to cope, under the weight of compound disasters.”
If it gets too hot indoors, Erin DeMerritt with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District suggested visiting cooling centers where they are available or any indoor space with filtered air while following mask-wearing and social distancing protocols.
“It’s also important to note that bandannas and masks used to protect yourself from the coronavirus do nothing to protect against smoke from wildfires,” she added.
The Bay Area has seen unhealthy levels of air pollution the last four consecutive years from smoke blowing from huge wildfires that devastated wine country in 2017 and the town of Paradise in 2018 and caused widespread evacuations in Sonoma County last year.
Wednesday’s poor air quality came on quickly as the Bay Area was socked in by exploding wildfires to the north, south and east.
Exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to real health problems, including asthma and heart attacks, said Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Jeff Pierce, who has worked with epidemiologists on the health effects of wildfires.
“Very unhealthy” air quality forecasts usually double hospitalizations for asthma but it may be different this year with people afraid to go to the hospital because of the coronavirus, he said.
Smoke can even penetrate homes, making it hard for vulnerable people, including those sick from coronavirus, to escape, Pierce said.