Poor air quality, fire conditions expected in North Bay through weekend

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As of 7:45am, all school districts in Sonoma County are closed either due to air quality concerns or for pre-scheduled staff development days. Dunham and Liberty school districts in Petaluma are closed for staff development.

As smoke from a deadly wildfire raging in Butte County filled Sonoma County skies for a second day Friday, prompting the closure of schools and government facilities, local fire agencies braced for yet another weekend of weather with elevated fire risk.

Smoke blowing in from the Camp fire burning east of Chico, more than 100 miles from Sonoma County, resulted in unhealthy air Friday, with similar conditions expected through the holiday weekend.

Sports events were canceled, classrooms shuttered and public meetings called off, another mark of the longer and more taxing fire season, with a half dozen major blazes burning across the state.

In Butte County, at least nine people had died and three firefighters were injured in the 90,000-acre Camp fire by Friday evening. At least 6,453 homes and 260 commercial structures had been destroyed, eclipsing the Tubbs fire as the single-most destructive wildfire in state history.

Sixteen engines from local fire departments and more than 70 personnel were deployed to the infernos in Butte and Ventura counties, Petaluma Fire Department Battalion Chief Jeff Holden said.

“Sonoma County fire agencies are paying back the help we got last year,” he said. “If something happened, we could get most equipment back here within a few hours, if needed. We’re all digging deep and providing resources to the folks that need it and that were down here last year helping us out.”

Extra help was called in to keep staffing at normal levels across Sonoma County, and some departments chose to also bring on additional personnel for the weekend, said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner. The reinforcements are part of plan meant to coincide with red-flag weather warnings, like the one in place this weekend for the North Bay mountains.

More lengthy and grueling fire seasons are the “new normal,” Holden said.

“(The firefighters) are troopers — they’re putting in the extra effort and they’re making it happen,” Gossner said. “But yes, everyone is tired. It’s a long fire season, and a long year.”

So far this year, Jimmy Bernal, a captain at Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, has responded to Redding’s deadly Carr fire and to the massive Mendocino Complex blazes. Local firefighters are preparing for the possibility of spending Thanksgiving on wildland assignments, as blazes continue to lay waste to portions of the state well into winter months, he said.

“It sucks because the holidays are coming ... the first holiday of the year (firefighters) are going to be out there,” he said.

In the Bay Area, where wildfire haze was a common nuisance this summer, smoke from the Camp fire has caused the worst air conditions so far this year, Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokeswoman Lisa Fasano said.

“The wildfires are getting more intense and we’re having more impacts of smoke for longer periods of time coming from longer distances,” she said. “These fires are not even anywhere near the Bay Area and we’re being severely impacted … This is probably the new normal, and that’s not good for any of us.”

Gusty winds in the North Bay mountains were forecast for Saturday night through Sunday, said Carolina Walbrun, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Monterey. Weather through the weekend and into early next week was expected to remain dry, with low relative humidity, she said.


As of 7:45am, all school districts in Sonoma County are closed either due to air quality concerns or for pre-scheduled staff development days. Dunham and Liberty school districts in Petaluma are closed for staff development.

Winds were not expected to provide much relief from smoke, she said.

Models are “hinting toward” some rain as Thanksgiving nears, though that’s “really low confidence,” she said.

“It’s still very, very dry,” she said. “We’re looking at very dry relative humidity and dry fuel ... it’s all a perfect combination for increasing fire danger.”

Friday, all school districts in Sonoma County were closed either because of air quality concerns or for pre-scheduled staff development days. Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College also were shut down Friday amid smoky conditions.

Schools will be closed Monday in observance of Veterans Day, and districts will continue to monitor air quality next week. No calls to cancel classes had been made Friday night. Santa Rosa Junior College will keep all its campuses closed through the weekend, according to a news release.

Amid heightened fire danger, Gossner urged Sonoma County residents to be prepared, keeping gas tanks full, bags packed with emergency supplies and evacuation plans ready.

“We live in an area that’s dry, and right now, we haven’t had enough rain,” he said. “We have low humidity and it can be breezy at any time. Be aware of your surroundings and where we are at the moment ... be prepared. People need to understand that fire and law enforcement continue to work together, whether it’s alerting, responding or just checking in.”

Staff Writers Kerry Benefield and Susan Minichiello contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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