Over the past few weeks, hundreds of fires in California have incinerated more than a million and a half acres, destroyed over 3,000 structures and taken seven lives.
And it’s still early in the wildfire season.
My colleague Thomas Fuller recently captured the mood in the Bay Area, a region engulfed in fire and choked by smokey haze four years in a row. “First there was the coronavirus, then the threat of fires and power outages, and now the smoke,” he wrote.
According to the California Air Resources Board, the state agency tasked with tracking and maintaining healthy air quality throughout the state, one quarter of California is classified as under very high or extreme fire threat and more than 25 percent of the state’s population lives in these high fire-risk areas. Even more people are vulnerable to plumes of smoke that can travel long distances and hover over populated areas.
Understanding the quality of the air we breathe is vital and the information is readily available at our fingertips, according to a group of experts I spoke to from the agency.
Here are four takeaways from our conversation.
We are collecting more information on air quality than ever before. According to CARB, for 50 years California has maintained one of the most extensive air-monitoring networks in the world. There are over 250 monitoring sites in the state alone.
To get the latest pollution readings, the board recommends using AirNow, a website and app run by the Environmental Protection Agency. AirNow has a separate fire and smoke map that uses portable sensors to track smoke plumes as they travel around the state. If you don’t have access to the internet, local newspapers also publish general air quality levels for that day.
AirNow uses the Air Quality Index, or A.Q.I., a measure of air quality from 0 to 500 that is composed of six categories, from “good” to “hazardous.” An A.Q.I. of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an A.Q.I. of over 300 represents hazardous air quality that is unhealthy for any person to breathe.
Check the index daily, the way you would check the weather. It’s generally a good idea to check the index before engaging in outdoor activities, said Webster Tasat, a manager from CARB’s air quality planning and science division.
People should also think about whether they fall into a sensitive group. “People who are in sensitive groups are especially vulnerable to air pollution,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, a health expert at CARB. This includes pregnant women, children, seniors and people that have existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or heart conditions and pre-existing respiratory illnesses.
When the A.Q.I. reaches 100 or more, outdoor air is no longer safe for sensitive groups.
Air pollution affects people all year, not just during wildfire season. On Aug. 24, smoke from wildfires raging in the Bay Area made the air quality four times worse than in Beijing or New Delhi. Three days later, the E.P.A’.s smoke map showed much of Northern California buried under a dark gray haze.
Mr. Tasat said that from Aug. 18 to 24, the daily average particle pollution level in California was about 500 percent higher than it was the same week in 2019, largely because of the wildfires.
However, California is subject to air pollution throughout the year. Sometimes there are high levels of both ozone and particle pollution during a particular season. Ozone pollution tends to be worse in the summer, Mr. Tasat said.
Fine particles in the soot, ash and dust of wildfire smoke make up particle pollutants, which can be inhaled by the lungs. During summer, the mixture of smoke pollutants and hotter temperatures generate what Ms. Holmes-Gen calls a “double whammy of ozone pollution and particle pollution.”
“One unique aspect of this time period, unfortunately, is that people can be affected by multiple types of air pollution,” she said.
You can reduce your exposure to air pollution. The effects of air pollution can be mild, like eye and throat irritation, or serious, requiring hospitalization for heart or respiratory issues. Smoke and pollution can cause inflammation of the lung tissue and increase the vulnerability of infections, Ms. Holmes-Gen said.
The most effective way to reduce your exposure to air pollution is to stay indoors with windows and doors closed, said Melanie Turner, a public information officer for the California Air Resources Board. Air-conditioning should remain on continuously, not the auto cycle, which cycles on and off, Ms. Turner said. It’s also helpful to close the fresh air intake so that smoke doesn’t get inside the house. If your system allows for it, it’s recommended to install a high efficiency air filter, classified as MERV 13 or higher. Portable air cleaners can also reduce indoor particulate matter in smaller spaces, like individual rooms. CARB certifies all air cleaners that are currently sold in California to ensure they meet its regulations for ozone emissions.
Here’s what else to read
On Monday, California lawmakers passed a bill to extend protections to renters who have lost income because of the pandemic. The bill grants tenants a temporary reprieve from missed payments and gives them until January to pay in full. Some tenant advocates were still worried. [San Francisco Chronicle]
CalMatters is compiling a list of newly passed bills from this year’s legislative session and tracking their fate through the bill-signing period.
One decade and several lawsuits later, the Terraces of Lafayette, a proposal for 315 apartments that has become emblematic of California’s housing crisis, was finally approved. [SFGate]
The saga was chronicled by my colleague Conor Dougherty in his book “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America,” an excerpt from which you can read here.
Because California lacks a uniform policy for reporting workplace coronavirus outbreaks, the public, and oftentimes essential workers, are left in the dark about how many workers have been sickened with the virus. [CalMatters]
The California Public Utilities Commission fired its executive director, Alice Stebbins, on Monday in response to allegations of unethical hiring decisions discussed in a recent personal audit. [San Francisco Chronicle]
San Francisco’s Chinatown has been hit hard by the pandemic, but there’s hope in seeing how it has weathered a shrinking economy and xenophobia in the past. [San Francisco Chronicle]
Facebook employees are angry with Mark Zuckerberg because they said the company did not do enough to take down pages promoting misinformation and conspiracy theories before the shooting in Kenosha, Wis. [BuzzFeed News]
For decades, Tad Jones lived alone in a California forest. His friends thought that if anyone could survive a wildfire it would be him, more a friend of nature than of man. [The New York Times]
“We all want new experiences, but that’s been hard to come by.” College students in the Covid-19 era are starting “collab houses” — but to go to school without staying at home with their parents. [The New York Times]
Modeled after food-delivery services in Seoul, a tiny Los Angeles Koreatown business keeps neighborhood restaurants running through the pandemic. [The New York Times]
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.