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Unhealthy air prompts some Sonoma County schools to call off athletic events

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Wide swaths of the prep sports calendar were wiped out Friday afternoon after poor air quality from the Kincade fire near Geyserville forced a long list of postponements and some outright cancellations of contests.

A few games, sitting in pockets where air quality was determined safe by standards issued by the North Coast Section, were given the green light and were played Friday — including Rancho Cotate’s home football game against Analy, Windsor at Ukiah football and Clear Lake football at Lower Lake.

Santa Rosa Junior College volleyball, a home match against Diablo Valley College, was also allowed to proceed at Haehl Pavillion Friday night.

But for the most part, Friday saw school officials waiting and watching air quality index monitors, hoping for a change in the weather, before finally making the call to nix almost all Friday night activity. Some officials didn’t even entertain the idea of moving contests to Saturday but instead jumped to Monday in an attempt to avoid yet another 24-hour cycle of unease and the unknown.

Many contests that were called off were the focus of phone calls and meetings throughout the day to find new dates, new times and, in some cases, new locations. At a meeting among Santa Rosa City Schools officials Friday afternoon, it was decided that in light of both the poor air quality and impending PG&E power shut-offs, all outdoor athletic activities on Friday and Saturday would be canceled or postponed.

It’s a routine that many athletic directors and administrators are frustratingly familiar with at this point.

This is the third straight year in which wildfires have wreaked havoc on the fall sporting season. If one counts the Clayton fire in 2016 and the Valley fire in 2015, both in Lake County, the count rises to five straight years.

Fort Bragg football coach Roy Perkins was on a bus with his squad heading to the Middletown High School campus Friday afternoon when he got the call from his friend and rival, Middletown coach Bill Foltmer, to turn around. They had made it as far as Willits.

“It was beautiful when I got to school,” Foltmer said. “And I thought, ‘We’re going to get the game in.’ ”

But the winds shifted and by noon the decision to postpone the game was as clear as the air was hazy.

“The smoke is real bad right now,” Foltmer said at about 3:30 p.m. He could see ash swirling in the air. Again.

The tentative plan between those two schools is to play Monday — in the afternoon at Middletown if the air is good or in the evening at Fort Bragg if it’s not.

“I just sent our kids home and said to be ready for the next phone call,” Perkins said.

The call to go forward with Rancho’s home game against Analy didn’t come until about 4:30 p.m., when the air index showed a drop of more than 20 points, according to Rancho officials. The junior varsity game had been canceled hours earlier.

Among the football games that will be rescheduled are Santa Rosa at Healdsburg, Montgomery at El Molino and Cardinal Newman at Maria Carrillo. Santa Rosa and Healdsburg officials were considering a Monday game, according to Healdsburg principal Bill Halliday.

North Coast Section commissioner Pat Cruickshank sent an email Thursday to all section schools reminding officials of the guidelines for holding athletic events. The call is made at the site level, he said, but if the air quality index hits 151 or above, no outdoor events can be held.

“Schools are going to make adjustments based on the information they have,” he said.

With severe winds expected to hit Sonoma County Saturday night and the Kincade fire still raging, the schedule changes could push into next week.

“We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” Cruickshank said.

For sports like soccer, where quicker turnarounds between games can be accommodated in most cases, contests that could not be played this weekend were moved to next week. Tech High girls soccer will now host, and celebrate senior night, with Calistoga on Tuesday. The Tech boys team, slated to play St. Vincent, is also going to be rescheduled, according to Scott McKeon, the athletic director for both Tech High and Rancho Cotate.

Cross country practices around Sonoma County were either canceled or moved indoors on Friday. Santa Rosa Junior College’s squad did an aerobic workout at the YMCA Friday morning.

Healdsburg High football coach Shaun Montecino said the air quality on Friday seemed much worse than the day prior. Changing schedules on players can be difficult, he said, but calling off the game was the right call, especially considering the school’s close proximity to the fire.

“At the end of the day, you want to make sure your players are OK and safe,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield.

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