Sonoma County chokes on smoke as fires pollute air across California
The air above Santa Rosa was socked full of smoke, but Steve Shrum had a plan for getting above the smoky haze.
On Thursday afternoon, Shrum, 46, set out on his once-a-week hike to the top of Taylor Mountain — 1,400 feet up and 5.5 miles there and back. He did it with some trepidation. An asthma sufferer since youth, he checked beforehand to make sure it was not at risky levels. In Sonoma County, at least, it was not.
“Believe it or not, as soon as you get over the first ridge, the wind’s blowing and it’s so fresh up there,” Shrum, slightly winded, said shortly after his hike. “As soon as I was coming down, you catch the smog.”
Its source was no secret: wildfire smoke from the massive inferno burning across Mendocino and Lake counties and wildfires elsewhere in the state has combined with vehicle emissions and other pollutants to produce unsightly if not unhealthy air quality in recent days.
On Thursday, Bay Area regulators triggered the second consecutive “Spare the Air” alert, including a host of advisories against driving and wood-burning and exercising outdoors after the morning hours. Elderly people, children and those with respiratory illnesses were urged to take extra measures to avoid prolonged exposure.
Officially, Sonoma County saw moderate air quality Thursday, while areas of Mendocino and Lake counties had air considered unhealthy for sensitive groups or just plain unhealthy. The worst air in the state was concentrated around fire zones and extends throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and across the Sierra Nevada. Only small pockets of the state —on the Humboldt County coast, the Central Coast and inland desert — had good air quality.
Such is life now in California’s expanding, ever-worsening fire season, delivering another hardship even for those who’ve escaped the flames.
David Eby, 68, of Blue Lakes in Lake County said even though the Ranch fire’s active flames were now miles away, on the north and east end of the historic conflagration, the skies over his community were filled with smoke.
“It burns your eyes and hurts your lungs,” said Eby, water master for the Blue Lakes Mobile Home Park and the Blue Lakes Improvement Club. “Nobody is out on the streets, everybody is indoors. The smoke is getting thicker as I’m watching.”
James Driscoll, a pulmonologist for Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, said residents should regularly consult air quality indices at such times to determine how they can avoid the worst of the pollution. The most accessible, color-coded index can be found at airnow.gov, with ratings ranging from healthy to hazardous.
“When the air quality is bad, people can get breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, cough, sore throat, nasal irritation, even eye irritation,” Driscoll said.
“If you’re outside, avoid vigorous activities where you’re going to breathe more deeply and more rapidly,” he said, adding that those most as risk are older people, young children and people with chronic lung problems.
When air quality reaches unhealthy levels — red on the government index — people should consider using respiratory protection if they must be outside. A properly fitted N95 mask, like those prevalent during the October firestorms, is the most cost-effective protection.