Smoke from nearby wildfires enveloping East Oakland, Aug. 19, 2020 Credit: Jacob Simas

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After witnessing a stunning sunset Tuesday night, many in Oakland and other parts of the East Bay woke up Wednesday to the smell of smoke in the air. Some found ash in their yards and coating their cars.

Wildfire season is upon us.

At noon, the air quality index (AQI), measured in East Oakland was 181 PM2.5, which is classified as “unhealthy” as it’s in the 151-200 range. That AQI score represents a steep rise from measurements taken earlier in the morning: At 4 a.m., the same monitoring station in East Oakland recorded an AQI score of 57 PM2.5, well within the 51-100 range defined as “moderate.”

The latest air quality data can be viewed on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District website.

The city of Oakland is directing residents to the Alameda County Public Health Department website for tips on how to protect one’s health when air quality is poor (see below). Unfortunately, just as scientists are reporting that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is reduced when outdoors, the health advice around air quality is to stay indoors.

Spare the Air alert has been issued through Wednesday, banning wood burning, and an air quality advisory through Thursday. (Update: Around 2 p.m., the Spare the Air advisory was extended through Sunday.)

Fires are currently being tackled and evacuations are underway in Napa, including the Hennessey Fire near St. Helena, the LNU Lightning Complex fires that are raging in multiple counties, and the CZU August Lightning Complex fires in Santa Cruz County. The San Francisco Chronicle has a free-to-access California Fire Map that is tracking wildfires across the San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma, Northern California, Central California, and Southern California.

“The air quality will be very poor for the foreseeable future given rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass,” the Bay Area arm of the National Weather Service tweeted on Wednesday morning around 7:40 a.m.

This is not the first time in recent history East Bay residents have felt the impact of wildfires elsewhere. The past three years have forced residents to take measures to avoid inhaling air pollutants caused by, in 2017 the wine country fires, in 2018 the deadly Camp Fire, and in 2019 the Kincade Fire. In the worst cases, when AQI was in the “unhealthy” (151-200) and “very unhealthy” (201-300) ranges, schools, colleges, and farmers markets closed.

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guidelines, tips, and resources

To check on air quality in the East Bay: Go to baaqmd.gov to find current air quality conditions

Resources and tips from Alameda County Public Health Department:

Bay Area residents impacted by wildfire smoke are advised to:

  • Stay indoors with windows and doors closed, where air quality is better.
  • Keep indoor air cool or visit an air-cooling center.
  • Set home and car ventilation systems on re-circulate to prevent drawing in outside air.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water.
  • Limit or avoid outdoor recreational and sports activities.
  • Use an air filter, especially if there are household members with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory conditions, or elderly persons and children.
  • Avoid using wood-burning stoves or fireplaces, lawn mowing, leaf blowing, burning candles and incense, barbecuing, smoking.
  • If possible, leave the affected area for the duration of a heavy smoke event.
  • Wildfire Smoke FAQs

Additional tips from the city of Berkeley:

To get emergency alerts: Sign up for AC Alert.

N-95s are not for everyone: There is no clear evidence that respirator use by the general public is beneficial. N-95 respirators may not protect you and may be dangerous for certain people. N-95 respirators are not meant for everyone:

  • Talk to your doctor first if you have a health condition.
    N-95 respirators may be dangerous for people with lung or heart conditions.
  • Children should not wear N-95 respirators.
    N-95 respirators are not certified for children; they do not fit properly and can impede breathing.
  • If you choose to wear an N-95 respirator, make sure it is fitted properly
    Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Wearing an ill-fitted respirator can lead to a false sense of security.

Other steps you can take to prepare for poor air quality:

  • Know where to go
    Make a list of places you can go with clean, filtered air.
  • Weatherize your home
    Replace leaky windows and doors. Use caulking to seal the openings.
  • Gather supplies
    Gather supplies you need to stay in your home while air quality is poor. See the CDC’s website on personal health preparedness.
  • Get an air purifier for your home
    If you have an HVAC system, get a MERV 13 or greater filter. Otherwise, get a HEPA air purifier. The California Air Resources Board has information about selecting an air cleaning device.
  • Create a family emergency plan
    Before an emergency happens, sit down together and decide how you will get in contact with each other, where you will go and what you will do in an emergency. See FEMA’s family emergency plan checklist.

Individuals with health conditions: If you have a health condition or belong to a group at high risk when air quality is poor, talk to your doctor in advance to create a personal plan for dealing with smoke.

The groups at greatest risk from wildfire smoke are:

  • People who have heart or lung disease
  • Older adults
  • Children
  • Pregnant individuals

A version of this story first appeared in Berkeleyside. It has been updated to include information about Oakland. Additional reporting by Jacob Simas.

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Tracey Taylor's writing has been published in The New York Times, the Financial Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Tracey has worked as an editor for business-to-business magazines and at the Financial Times in London, as well as for private clients, including nonprofits and authors. She has also edited books and worked as a professional blogger.