A smokey silhouette of the Downtown Oakland skyline from the Berkeley Hills. The hazy is smoke as a result of multiple wildfires surrounding the Bay Area. August 19, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

With multiple ongoing wildfires in Oregon and Northern California, the skies above Oakland and Berkeley have been tinged with smoke, with air quality registering in many places at levels unhealthy for sensitive groups of people.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District on Wednesday issued a “Spare the Air” alert Wednesday. 

The air quality in the Coast and Central Bay zone, which encompasses Oakland and Berkeley, is forecast to remain in the moderate range on Wednesday and Thursday.

Unofficial PurpleAir sensors throughout Oakland and Berkeley have registered AQIs above 100, which means sensitive people should limit prolonged outdoor exposure. 

Because the Bay Area forms a single air basin, where winds can easily blow unhealthy air from one zone into the other, BAAQMD calls for a Spare the Air alert across all five of its reporting zones when even one of its reporting zones is forecast to exceed 100 in the AQI.

If you smell smoke, the district recommends that you stay inside with windows and doors closed “until smoke levels subside, if temperatures allow,” as smoke can cause coughing or a scratchy throat and irritate sinuses. The district also recommends you set your air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to prevent outside air from moving inside. 

Elderly people, children and those with respiratory illnesses are more susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure. 

Staying indoors is the best way to limit exposure to wildfire smoke, but if you must go outside, a tight-fitting N95 or P100 can filter out ash and minuscule smoke particles, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Do not choose a mask with only one strap or two straps that go around your ears, as they are not designed to seal tightly to the face and will not protect your lungs.)

The burning of wood or other solid fuel is banned while the alert is in place, and Bay Area residents are asked to limit driving if possible. Today’s alert is the sixth of 2023 and is expected to be lifted on Thursday.

The fires near the California-Oregon border were sparked by thunderstorms on Aug. 14, according to the U.S. Forest Service

The National Weather Service has also issued a red flag warning for the North Bay interior mountains — the Bay Area office’s first since October 2021 — through Wednesday evening due to dry conditions coupled with strong northerly winds. 

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Classical Voice, among other publications. In her spare time, you can find her petting street cats or playing cello. She joined Berkeleyside in June 2022.