Smoke and ash from the deadly Camp fire 100 miles away in Butte County caused air quality in some parts of Sonoma County to descend to “very unhealthy” levels Friday, triggering public health warnings through the weekend.
Dr. Karen Holbrook, the county’s health officer, advised most local residents to avoid being outside for prolonged periods or wear protective masks to avoid breathing invisible particulate matter in the air.
In areas of the county where air quality is rated “very unhealthy,” Holbrook said residents should avoid being outside at all.
“There are patches of the county that are very unhealthy,” Holbrook said. “I’m just erring on the side of caution. ... Everybody needs to limit their time outside.”
Holbrook said none of the county’s hospitals or clinics have reported an uptick in emergency department visits for respiratory illnesses.
“I am hopeful that will remain true for the upcoming future,” she said. “I hope people are listening to advice and limiting their time outdoors and staying indoors as much as possible.”
When the air quality reaches the current unhealthy levels, some people may experience a number of symptoms, including nose and throat irritation, breathing problems and even headaches, said Dr. James Driscoll, a pulmonologist for Kaiser Permanente.
People with chronic heart or lung conditions, the elderly and children are most at risk when air quality is bad, he said.
Air quality is usually monitored by the concentration of tiny particulate matter designated as PM2.5, or solid and liquid particles having a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, or 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. High concentrations of such small particles, which are invisible to the naked eye, can reach deeper into the lungs and cause health problems, Driscoll said. By comparison, pollen is classified as PM10, or 10 micrometers.
“Pollens are invisible. These particles are even smaller,” he said.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who also sits on the board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said the unhealthy air is as bad as it was the first few days after the deadly Tubbs fire roared into Santa Rosa on Oct. 8, 2017.
In measuring air pollution, the level of air quality can range from satisfactory, or zero, to as high as a serious health risk exceeding 500.
On Friday evening, the air across the county ranged from readings of nearly 265 in east Santa Rosa, 220 in Sebastopol, to as high as 405 in Healdsburg, according to the Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.
Health officials said these poor air quality conditions in the county are likely to remain for the next 24 hours. An air quality district meteorologist said weather conditions Saturday will depend on the wind. There could be less smoke, the meteorologist said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean air quality will improve significantly.
“Children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease are most at risk for harmful impacts,” according to the health officials’ statement.
Driscoll said those who must be outside should wear a N-95 or P-100 rated mask. “You have to have the right kind of mask to protect yourself when the air quality is poor,” he said. “So a simple dust mask won’t be helpful.”
Driscoll said the effects of breathing pollutants currently in the air include coughing and shortness of breath, as well as long-term respiratory issues. Driscoll echoed Holbrook’s recommendation to avoid being outdoors and vigorous activity. If you’re in a car, set the car’s fan or air conditioner to recirculate air.
The county public health division on Friday issued the following recommendations to residents:
• Limit your time outside.
• If possible, seek shelter in buildings with filtered air or go to areas outside the region until smoke levels subside.
• Keep your windows and doors closed unless it’s extremely hot outside.
• Run your home or car air-conditioner on recycle or recirculate. Keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.
• If you or your children have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor for advice if symptoms worsen or consider leaving the area.