Joe Davidson

How prep teams are handling smoke: ‘Football is a religion ... but we have to be smart’

The sun sets in the west into a smoke-filled horizon from the County Fire in Yolo and Napa counties on July 1, 2018.
The sun sets in the west into a smoke-filled horizon from the County Fire in Yolo and Napa counties on July 1, 2018. lsterlingr@sacbee.com

Poor air quality forced area high school teams to cancel outdoor activities on Tuesday due to wildfire smoke that has shrouded much of Northern California.

Many teams – football, cross country, tennis, golf – lift weights or condition inside when smoke burns eyes and lungs.

The air has been particularly bad in Placer County and Grass Valley, where smoke tends to hover like low clouds.

The football teams at Bear River, Colfax, Nevada Union and Placer went indoors twice last week to condition and did so again Tuesday without any mandates from district offices. Coaches regularly check the air quality index, understanding that anything above 150 is unhealthy.

“I’m watching Spare the Air online seven or eight times a day, and it sometimes changes here hourly,” said Bear River athletic director and football co-coach Scott Savoie. “We go inside when it’s bad. It’s really weird here because normally, we have an afternoon breeze that’s a saving grace, but now that breeze is bringing the smoke in.

“You’ve got to take care of your people, your kids. Football is a religion, no doubt about it, but we have to be smart and protect kids as much as we can.”

Smoke has affected much of the Sac-Joaquin Section, which has 195 member schools, the second largest of the 10 sections in the state.

“We don’t have an air-quality rule but we tell people to know the situation,” said Will DeBoard, Sac-Joaquin Section spokesman and assistant commissioner. “I’d be cautious to the extreme over the next couple of days.”

The California Interscholastic Federation, the state-wide governing body for prep sports, is located in Sacramento, where it’s been common this week for people to whisk ash particles off windshields like snow.

Said CIF spokeswoman Rebecca Brutlag, “Due to the size of the state, there is no universal rule regarding air quality. The State CIF advises schools to adhere to local environmental agencies and air quality indexes to determine the potential risk. The CIF urges coaches to plan accordingly in designing their outdoor practice sessions to reduce exposure to all weather-related issues.”

The Twin Rivers District, like those in Fresno, issued an email directive to coaches and administrators to not conduct any outdoor practices on Tuesday afternoon.

Grant High School squeezed in a short football workout outdoors Tuesday morning, though assistant coach and athletic director Carl Reed monitored things with his eyes, lungs and phone app that updates air quality. If the smoke worsens the rest of the week, Reed said he and coach Mike Alberghini will bring the team indoors.

“It tends to really pick up smoke-wise here in the afternoon,” Reed said. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it here. It’d be impossible to practice in the afternoon, it’s that bad.”

Said Rio Linda athletic director Mike Morris, whose school is a member of he Twin Rivers District, “Everyone has teams that have kids who have some health issues, like asthma, and smoke can really be hard on the big kids, so we all have to be smart in how we moderate practice. It’s just nasty out there.”

Morris has studied how damaging smoke can be. The Carr Fire has devastated the Redding and Shasta regions where he grew up.

“When there are fires that span hundreds of thousands of acres with billions of tons of smoke released, it amplifies things,” Morris said. “There are microscopic bits of ash and water in smoke that are carried by the wind. These particles also carry gasses that are hazardous and are extremely dangerous to teenagers because their respiratory systems are still developing, and they take in more air than normal adults. In practice, athletes breath heavily.

“If it smells smoky outside, then it’s too smoky for a full-length practice.”

In southern Sacramento County, a mandate to be smoke aware has been issued to school administrators by way of the Elk Grove Unified School District office.

Said EGUSD spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton, “We send notices, reminders and alerts out to our administrative teams and coaches when high heat or unhealthy air quality is forecasted. We ask that plans be in place to make adjustments. Our coaches and staff are quick to make those changes and move activities indoors and/or cancel practice.”

Cosumnes Oaks athletic director George Smith said morning practices have allowed cross country, tennis and golf athletes to condition outdoors.

“The problem is football, outside in the afternoon,” Smith said. “We all have to be mindful, and if we need to shut it down and bring the kids inside, we will. It’s safety first.”

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