Sacramento Valley and foothills residents awoke Wednesday to the heavy smell of smoke, hazy brown skies and ashes on car windshields – the result of nearly two dozen Northern California wildfires, including the Atlas Fire, which exploded overnight in the hills west of Fairfield.
“It was some of the worst that any of us have ever seen in Sacramento over a large area, and even worse to the west in Vacaville,” said Thomas Hall, a spokesman for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality District.
Air meters throughout the region registered unhealthy levels of particulate matter from Vacaville and Davis in the west valley to higher foothill elevations in Grass Valley and Colfax early Wednesday.
But the winds that caused the foul air altered direction, and by midday air quality in the region had improved noticeably. Air quality officials say early projections are for improved air quality early Thursday, but north winds are forecast for later in the week, bringing the chances of a new mass of wildfire smoke into the basin later this week.
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“We are playing it day by day,” Hall said.
Residents and some institutions around the region said they changed plans when they realized how thick the smoke was.
Officials at both the Sacramento City Unified School District and the San Juan Unified School District sent alerts to school principals Wednesday morning instructing them to hold recess indoors and cancel outside activities.
Caltrans sent some employees home, with paid time off, because of smoky conditions at a warehouse on Royal Oaks Drive.
UC Davis’ football team stretched and ran a few plays during practice Wednesday morning, but did not suit up in pads or helmets. Interim communications director Eric Bankston said coaches decide to ease up after consulting the team’s medical staff.
Elk Grove resident Bernadette Durbin said she had been planning to do her “let’s get healthier” bike ride Wednesday morning, “but after stepping outside, smelling the fires, and coughing like mad after walking the kids to school, I realized I wasn't going to get healthier by breathing that.”
Home Depot officials reported on Wednesday they are shipping more respirators and dust masks to stores around Northern California.
Home Depot spokesman Matt Harrigan said the focus is on stores in Rohnert Park and Windsor in Sonoma County near the epicenter of several wildfires, including the Tubbs Fire the destroyed sections of Santa Rosa.
But he said there also is “high demand” for masks in the Sacramento area. “We are routing more product to the Sacramento area too because that is important to us … obviously, we try to prioritize the stores that are in the highest impact areas.”
Visits to the emergency room at Fairfield’s Sutter Solano Medical Center were up 25 percent Monday and Tuesday, compared with the same period last year, said Sutter spokesman Gary Zavoral. He said hospital officials had not tracked whether the surge in patients was due to respiratory issues. The Sutter Medical Foundation Urgent Care in Fairfield is seeing an increase in patient volume directly related to respiratory ailments.
Wildfire smoke in particular is harmful because it contains particulates that are about 1/30 the width of a human hair. “It can penetrate deep into the lungs,” said Mat Ehrhardt of the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District.
But UC Riverside professor Marko Princevac, an expert in the air quality impacts of wildfires, said for most people the negative health consequences of breathing fire smoke are short-term, similar to the effects of sitting for hours around a campfire – an activity, he noted, that many people enjoy.
Typical reactions are itchy eyes, sore throats and coughing. Typically, “you are not talking about long-term consequences,” Princevac said. “It is just unpleasant.”
In alerts issued Wednesday morning, however, air quality officials warned that children, the elderly and people with respiratory conditions should be particularly careful to avoid exposure. They also advised everyone to stay inside with windows shut as much as possible. Walls act as a filter to keep out the fine particulate matter.
Some people may not know that they are sensitive to smoke until an event like this one, so everyone, regardless of physical fitness, age or health, should pay attention to how their bodies are reacting, Yolo air quality official Ehrhardt said.
“There’s a range of susceptibility of individuals to the conditions of air quality,” said Kent Pinkerton, director of the UC Davis Center for Health and the Environment. “Many people, even on a very bad smoggy day, might have some irritation, but they can tolerate it. They can handle it, whereas others who might be more sensitive, it can be a real problem for them in breathing and in respiratory symptoms such as the scratchy throat or wheezing or just feeling uncomfortable.”
Sometimes, Pinkerton said, people don’t go to their doctor or the hospital emergency rooms right away, and then they realize the problem is not going away. They see a physician after struggling with breathing problems for several days, he said.
This sort of air pollution event may trigger asthmatic symptoms in 40- or 50-year-old adults who have never experienced the condition, he said. Asthma is really an increase of secretions in the lungs, and as people try to expel this gunk, they cough more. The secretions block or narrow the airways, preventing much-needed oxygen from reaching the right areas of the lungs, Pinkerton said, and that causes sufferers to wheeze and become short of breath.
A severe attack can be life-threatening, but Pinkerton said physicians can administer breathing treatments or prescribe inhalers to people experiencing an attack.
Fortunately, Pinkerton said, “our environment is constantly scrubbing out the gases and the particles that may be present. We just have to wait a few days for that to occur.”