The air quality is bad and it’s not getting any better anytime soon as unprecedented wildfires rage across California.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District held a press conference by Zoom Monday morning to discuss the impact of wildfire smoke blanketing the valley.
Jon Klassen, director of strategies and incentives at the district, said a record breaking 3.2 million acres have already burned throughout California halfway through wildfire season. Cal Fire has logged 7,718 fire incidents so far in 2020.
“From the San Joaquin Valley’s perspective we have fires to the north of us, to the south of us, the east and the west, so the challenge we’ve been having is no matter which way the wind is blowing smoke continues to come into the San Joaquin Valley,” Klassen said.
“And because of our topography and the meteorology that can happen here, often we can have high pressure come over us placing a lid over the bowl of the valley -- which has been happening a lot in recent days and past few weeks -- and that smoke gets trapped near the valley floor and we have very high concentrations.”
On Saturday the air pollution district reissued its health caution as particulate matter concentrations were expected to remain elevated through the week resulting in more unhealthy air.
Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history five have been from this year, including the August Complex fire in Tehema County, which is now the largest fire ever recorded in California history, consuming more than 755,000 acres as of Monday morning.
“Because of what we’re experiencing here, where we’re surrounded by wildfires, no matter what happens with the weather it seems like we continue to have smoke come into the valley,” Klassen said.
Smoke from fires in southern California along with SQF Complex fire near Kernville and the Creek Fire in Madera and Fresno counties have contributed to the layer of smoke in the valley.
The PM2.5 pollution -- smoke, dust, soot and ash that are 2.5 microns or smaller in the wildfire smoke -- can trigger asthma attacks, aggravate chronic bronchitis and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. People with pre-existing respiratory conditions including COVID-19 and young children and the elderly, are especially at risk.
Klassen said levels of PM2.5 reached the very unhealthy levels in mid-August when lightning-sparked grass fires had just started and have returned in recent days. The forecast was for the very high concentrations to remain until the end of the week.
Jaime Holt, chief communication officer at the air pollution control district had simple advice for residents during the unhealthy air days: Stay indoors.
“First and foremost our message has been and continues to be stay inside,” Hold said. “We understand that folks are kind of sick and tired of being inside for the last six months due to COVID, but right now it is very important that you continue to be inside, that you change out the air filter in your HVAC system — that is to say your air filters that maybe you change every two or three months we’re now looking at changing every three to four weeks,” Holt said.
People with health issues including asthma and COPD could also use an air purifier to help improve air quality within their home.
Outdoor activity should be limited during exposure to the smoke.
“We’ve been answering a lot of questions about whether or not people can go outside even if it is just for a few hours, we also have witnessed a lot of people doing activities outside albeit exercising or jogging and our number one advice is put those off,” Holt said. “Take those inside or put them off so we don’t see folks voluntarily exposing themselves to poor air quality.”
For people who have to work outside, the air pollution district urged people to talk to their employers about CAL OSHA regulations in place regarding workplace safety under episodes of wildfire smoke and poor air quality.
Holt said the regulations can include employers providing outdoor works with N-95 masks
She said they are not recommending everyone go out and use N-95 masks in the smoke because the supplies are limited during the pandemic and are needed for essential workers.
Cloth and paper masks do not provide protection against the microscopic particulate matter in wildfire smoke.
Residents can use the air pollution district’s Real-time Air Advisory Network to monitor air quality at https://www.valleyair.org/myraan/.
Information about recent and past wildfires can be found at the district’s wildfire page at http://www.valleyair.org/aqinfo/wildfires.htm.