Far from California fires, smoke shuts schools and idles cable cars

The Golden Gate Bridge is obscured by smoke and haze from wildfires Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, in this view from Fort Baker near Sausalito, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — While the shocking death toll and images of destruction from the Camp Fire in Northern California have dominated headlines, its thick blanket of unhealthy smoke has paralyzed communities across a large swath of the state, creating a public health crisis for millions of residents spread out over hundreds of miles.

“Throughout the Bay Area we’re seeing either unhealthy air readings or very unhealthy air in San Francisco right now,” Tina Landis, public information officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told Yahoo News. “We’re getting readings of 235 [on the Air Quality Index scale], which is in that very unhealthy range, and this is because we’re getting very light winds that are blowing directly from the fire into the Bay Area.”

Schools and universities in cities and towns from Chico down to San Jose, over 150 miles south, were closed on Friday due to worsening air conditions. Some communities saw readings in the “hazardous” range, which is the highest on the air-quality scale. It has been virtually impossible for residents to escape the smoke that has spread south from the blaze that wiped out the city of Paradise and has left at least 63 people dead and, as of noon Friday, 10 times that number missing.

“The impacts are immediate. It causes all kinds of respiratory problems, especially if you already have asthma or you’re a child or an older person,” Landis said. “It can trigger all kinds of underlying issues, including heart attacks. The fine particulate matter are very tiny. One thousand sit on the head of a pin, and they get deep inside your lungs and enter your blood stream.”

California heath officials have warned residents to stay indoors and recommended avoiding physical activity, especially for those with breathing or heart conditions.

On Thursday, as the reading in Sacramento hovered near “hazardous,” public schools in the district remained open.

“My eyes were burning my nose was burning and my lungs hurt,” Margaret Myers, a second-grade teacher at Sacramento’s Camelia Elementary told Yahoo News, adding that keeping students indoors the entire day was simply not feasible. “You pick the kids up from the cafeteria, walk them outside to get to the classroom, teach for a couple hours, walk them outside to use the restroom, walk them back to the classroom. You walk them outside to go to the PE room.”

A couple standing on Alcatraz Island wear masks while looking out to the bay obscured by smoke and haze from wildfires on Thursday. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)

Many parents, Myers said, sent their kids to school this week wearing ill-fitting surgical masks that health professionals deem insufficient to filter out dangerous particles. A better choice is an N95 respirator mask, and fire stations in Sacramento had distributed an estimated 67,000 of them to residents through Wednesday.

“Staying indoors is better than going out with a mask, which aren’t foolproof. Unless you have a very symmetrical face, they don’t seal perfectly,” Landis said. “If you have a beard they don’t seal. If you’re a child they often don’t fit correctly. The masks are for when you absolutely have to go outside. It’s better than nothing.”

An hour and a half south, in the town of Albany, located in the East Bay next to Berkeley, face masks are a common sight on sidewalks and in supermarkets. The Thursday night decision to cancel classes Friday shows how local officials are making decisions as they go.

“In the days since the Camp Fire began near Chico, air quality in Alameda County remains at levels considered “unhealthy” by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District,” Albany schools superintendent Val Williams told parents in an email. He added: “the air quality over the past week has not improved, and tomorrow’s forecast does not indicate that conditions will change.”

A drive across the Golden Gate Bridge is decidedly less scenic as a result of the Camp Fire. Visibility is so low that the tops of the iconic spires are a hazy blur, and the view of Alcatraz is all but obliterated. In the city itself, where schools have also been shuttered, sidewalks feel empty and cable car service has been suspended.

“Being indoors with your windows and doors closed is the best protection,” Landis said. “Obviously, if you can afford a filter or you’re in a newer house with windows that seal, that’s the best option. If you have a very drafty house or already have respiratory issues, you should look for a shelter with filtered air.”

The San Francisco skyline is obscured by smoke and haze from wildfires behind Alcatraz Island on Wednesday. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)

San Francisco has set up dozens of such shelters, some in public library branches, others in theaters with air filtration systems, but getting to one requires residents to step outside. With no rain expected in Northern California through early next week, air quality across the region is not expected measurably improve anytime soon, and residents are being forced to adapt.

“Sadly, I think if this is going to be the new normal, we need to adopt some sort of policy about air quality, because it’s not OK for these kids to be out,” Myers said.

While Bay Area residents forced to stay indoors are lucky in comparison to those who lost homes or loved ones in the fire, a grim realization seems also to have taken hold for a part of the world engulfed by smoke for the second full week since a different wildfire ravaged Sonoma just over a year ago.

“The effects of climate change, this is what we’re seeing right now. Wildfires are becoming more frequent in California,” Landis said. “We are going to have these challenges to public health as a result.”

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