California Dreaming: Making the best of state's smoky new reality

ByDustin Dorsey KGO logo
Thursday, August 26, 2021
Making the best of CA's smoky new reality
Experts explain how California air quality may continue to get worse due to climate change and wildfires, but you can still protect yourself.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Seemingly every year in California we set records for the biggest and worst fire seasons to date.

In addition to the millions of acres of land, buildings and lives lost, the fires create an issue in the skies that impacts everyone across the state: wildfire air quality.

As the Dixie Fire burned in Northern California, surrounding areas saw the worst air quality in the world.

Experts say these issues may just be a way of life in California, but that same group is always doing what they can to learn how to combat the issues.

RELATED: California wildfires: Expert says get used to smoky skies, bad air quality for decades to come

"In recent years, we've seen more and more of these just really catastrophic fires that get bigger and they burn longer and hotter," California Air Resources Board Spokesperson Amy MacPherson said. "The smoke they produce is really harmful to people's health and it's something we're very concerned about."

"I think residents of the Western US are just going to have to get used to smoky skies and bad air quality as we go through the next few decades because we're going to have more fires due to climate change and, if we can't handle that, then we're just gonna have to deal with the smoke," SJSU Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center Director Dr. Craig Clements said. "That is a problem. These fires are burning hotter, they're burning more intensely and they're creating a lot of smoke and it can really impact communities. So, we have to get used to that, unfortunately."

At San Jose State University, the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center has a team of trained staff members that are actively studying yearly fires in the state and even across the world to learn fires behave so people can navigate around the issues.

"We have a group of faculty that are studying wildfires across the state and international," Dr. Clements said. "We have a real-time air quality forecasting model that's operational for California and the Western US. We look at just the PM 2.5 concentrations total because that's what impacts our respiratory systems. This model can actually generate that. What happens is those winds push smoke around and when we get a weather pattern that causes the overall wind to blow that smoke into Northern California or into the Bay Area, that's when we can get our biggest smoking impacts. It could look a lot like last year, where we had those apocalyptic skies. It just sets up to where we have the right weather pattern, where the winds are blowing that smoke into the Bay Area, and then if it gets stagnant and sits over the area, then we have multiple days of bad air quality."

RELATED: Firefighters innovate, change tactics amid historic CA wildfires

Californians have gotten much better at understanding air quality in their area as these fires burn thanks to groups like the California Air Resources Board.

Part of their efforts to help with wildfires comes in teaching people how to keep themselves safe from smoky conditions and bad air quality.

The team has some simple tips to help you stay healthy and safe.

"From a health perspective, smoke is really dangerous, especially for people who have pre-existing conditions," MacPherson said. "What's really concerning is that these fires are producing just this huge amount of smoke and it's traveling hundreds of miles. You don't have to live near a fire to actually experience health impacts from that fire. We're all in California, we're all experiencing these fires and we live in areas that are very prone to them. We understand how important it is, how urgent it is and we want our families to be safe too. So, I think you've got people who really deeply care about what's going on. Who are, I can guarantee you, working around the clock to find solutions to these problems and to implement them as quickly as we can. The number one thing you can do to protect yourself from smoke is to stay inside. There are a number of things once you're in there that you can do to make sure your indoor air quality is good. If you have central air, make sure you're running a new filter, make sure it's the highest Merv rating that your system can allow. Don't cook without using the range hood, don't vacuum, don't light candles, anything that can create particles in the air. Once you have that clean air space, you can stay there until the worst of the smoke goes by. The other big thing you need to do is check the air quality. Get in the habit every day of, during wildfire season, pulling up the air quality on your phones. If you do need to be outside if you work outdoors, or if you have to be outside for an extended period of time when it's smoky, wear an NIOSH certified N95 mask. The general rule of thumb is: if you can smell smoke, your breathing it. Sometimes we'll see smoke and the skies will look really hazy, but the air quality is actually okay. Sometimes smoke will travel high enough in the atmosphere that you're not actually breathing it on the ground. But if you smell smoke, you're breathing it and that's when you really need to be careful and take some steps to avoid it."

You can find more information on how to protect yourself from bad air quality by visiting the California Air Resources Board's website here.

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