Junior football player Christian Garcia, left, breaks for water with the Mesa Verde High School varsity team every 15 minutes during practice Tuesday afternoon in Citrus Heights. José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

With wildfires in every direction, Sacramento region can't escape smoke, heat

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 24, 2014 - 7:03 am

For residents of the Sacramento region, there was little escape from Tuesday's stifling blanket of smoke. With wildfires burning in most every direction, the air was about as bad as it gets: smoky and hot, with only the barest hint of breeze.

"The heat and the smoke are the first thing people say after they say hello," said Alicia Black, who works at Ethel M. Hart Senior Center in midtown Sacramento. "They're complaining about the air quality and the smoke."

A break in temperature – a high in the mid-90s as opposed to the predicted 108 – helped keep the region's air-related misery in check.

By the afternoon, the emergency room at Sutter General Hospital had seen no patients with respiratory problems, a spokesman said. A Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center pulmonary clinic had treated only two patients with respiratory complaints.

Even so, day care centers around the region kept young children indoors for much of the day. The San Juan Unified and Sacramento City Unified school districts moved many practices for their student athletes to the cooler, less smoky morning hours.

And doctors warned that the very old and very young, as well as people with chronic respiratory problems, needed to stay indoors away from the heavy air.

"A child with asthma in a PE class that's planning to run in the heat, they should probably be excused from that," said Dr. Albin Leong, a Permanente Pediatric Group pulmonologist at Roseville Medical Center.

"The combination of two bad factors, the heat and the air quality, is a double whammy," Leong added.

Smoke from the wildfires can cause symptoms as mild as coughing and burning eyes and throats – and as serious as nausea, fatigue, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest pain.

"The problem is the particulates in the air from the smoke and the farming and crop dusting, plus it's hot," said Sutter Medical Group allergist Dr. Ronald Brown, whose office at Sutter Davis Hospital faces toward the hills outside Winters. "I look west toward the hills, and I can't see them at all. It looks terrible."

The blazes nearby included a relatively small fire about 40 miles southwest of Sacramento in the sloughs of Solano County, which sent smoke to the region on Tuesday morning.

In the thick brush of Lake and Colusa counties, about 60 miles northwest of Sacramento, the Wye and Walker fires grew cumulatively to 7,000 acres and were 60 percent contained by late afternoon.

Some 70 miles southeast of Sacramento, the Ramsey fire in Calaveras County grew to about 800 acres, with containment at 10 percent, according to local news reports. And 100 miles to the northeast, the long-burning Chips fire consumed 37,000 acres and was about 20 percent contained.

Despite the ring of fires, forecasters didn't predict the blanket of haze and smoke that descended on the region.

"We were not expecting this at all," said National Weather Service forecaster Tom Dang. "The extent and coverage we saw this morning were quite impressive."

And today could bring the same, he said.

"While fire and smoke behavior are difficult to predict, I wouldn't be surprised if we see something similar to what we had today, if a little less coverage," Dang said Tuesday.

Smoke was thickest Tuesday in Grass Valley, Lincoln, Auburn, Colfax and downtown Sacramento, according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, while Elk Grove and Davis avoided the heaviest smoke.

The district forecast another "Spare the Air" day for today, encouraging residents to stay inside during the afternoon and late evening and drive as little as possible.

"People need to stay indoors with the air conditioner on," said Brown.

But not everyone can do that.

The air conditioner in Niki Kangas' Oak Park home was broken, and she was exhausted Tuesday, having stayed up overnight with her two sons, ages 4 and 6, who were coughing and miserable from the smoke in the air.

"I had to have the windows open because it was so hot," said Kangas, 30, a single mother who works for Fuel Creative Group. "My little boys kept waking up and coughing and crawling into my bed.

"I was so nervous. I was up all night Googling 'smoke inhalation illness' to see if I needed to take them to the hospital. Moms tend to worry."

Retired warehouseman Joe Pacheco has a working air conditioner – but he doesn't like to use it, because he's trying to save money.

"I had to shut my patio door and bedroom window because I felt my eyes and nose burning," said Pacheco, 79, who lives in Sacramento. "That helped some, but it warmed the room up, and I had to open the window again."

He was heading out in the haze Tuesday afternoon, taking the bus across town for a long-standing doctor's appointment.

"I'll be OK," Pacheco said. "I have to put up with it, because it's how I get around."

After overnight lows in the mid-60s, temperatures are expected to reach 102 today, forecasters said.

With Mama Boot Camp classes at parks all over the region, the program's founder, Lorri Ann Code, was not pleased to end up inside on a treadmill on Tuesday for her own workout. She also canceled evening classes in Folsom and Elk Grove because of the smoke.

"For me to be inside, you know the air quality has added up," she said. "I go inside when it's smoky. If I can't smell it, I'm out in it."

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