A view of the Berkeley HIlls, obscured by smoke and crisscrossed by wires
A view of the Berkeley Hills, obscured by smoke, as seen from the corner of Alcatraz and Shattuck avenues on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Wildfires are again turning East Bay skies smoky Tuesday, with an unhealthy smell in the air and the view of the hills hazy from the flats. 

Fires ripping through Northern California and Oregon brought air quality in Oakland and Berkeley to unhealthy levels and prompted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to issue a “Spare the Air” alert for Tuesday and Wednesday.

In the Coast and Central Bay zone, which encompasses Oakland, BAAQMD forecasts show that the air quality will remain in the moderate range through Wednesday. 

The BAAQMD’s official air quality station in Oakland registered AQIs in the 102 to 120 range Tuesday. Many unofficial PurpleAir sensors in Berkeley have registered AQIs above 100, meaning the air is “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” and several have detected AQIs above 151 — the benchmark for air that is unhealthy to the general public. 

Air quality in parts of the Bay Area reached dangerous (red) levels Tuesday. Source: fire.airnow.gov

The BAAQMD recommends you stay inside with windows and doors closed until smoke levels subside.

“Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat and irritated sinuses,” the BAAQMD wrote in its air quality advisory. “Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema or COPD.”

Being 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 miniscule 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 “Spare the Air” alert is in place, and Bay Area residents are asked to limit driving if possible. If you must drive, set your air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to prevent outside air from moving inside. 

The fires at the Northern California-Oregon border were sparked by lightning strikes in mid-August, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The National Weather Service’s Bay Area office has issued a fire weather watch farther north, but a red flag warning is not currently in place in Berkeley because it is not “critically dry.”

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.