Smoke from California Wildfires Causing Air Quality Crisis

As fires devastate communities, authorities warn of public health risk throughout much of greater San Francisco Bay Area

The most devastating wildfires in Californian history are not only ripping through forests and communities but are also causing a wider public health crisis due to polluted air and unhealthy smoke from the burning.

photo of smoke in Bay Area
The Salesforce Tower in downtown San Francisco amid the dystopian haze hanging over the city. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Smoke from the wildfires has reached the wider San Francisco Bay area, and is causing an “eerie glow” over the famous Golden Gate Bridge and “dystopian haze” over the city.

Authorities are now warning people to stay indoors due to the “unhealthy” air outside which is currently trapped by an inversion layer.

From San Francisco to Sacramento the air quality is now officially listed as “unhealthy,’’ according to Bloomberg. “Almost everyone there is at risk for breathing problems,” it states.

AIRNOW, a US air quality tracking service created by the Environmental Protection Agency, advises that with air quality like this: “Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.’’

People are now being advised to now stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. Walter Wallace, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), said: “What we’re telling people is the best thing you can do is to be indoors,” before warning that “we’re not seeing any type of rain in the near future, and we’re seeing that the winds will be light. We’re not going to see any fresh air that will take any of the bad air out.”

Indeed, the latest advisory from the BAAQMD is that “Air quality continues to be unhealthy through much of the region and these conditions are expected to persist through Friday at least. While weather conditions will vary somewhat throughout the week, air quality is expected to remain unhealthy because there is so much smoke trapped at the surface and surrounding the region.”

If residents are venturing outside, many residents are wearing face masks to try and protect their health.

But there are also concerns about other contamination too. One of the fires, the Woolsey Fire, is reported to have begun on, or close to, the heavily contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) site. A former nuclear and rocket engine testing site, it is seen as one of the most contaminated sites in the US, and local residents have long campaigned for it to be cleaned up.

Over the last few days there has been raging debate about possible additional air contamination from this site caused by the fires.

Four days ago, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which has regulatory oversight for cleaning up the contaminated site, stated that “Our scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location and do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.”

However local community groups and scientists are not reassured. “We can’t trust anything that DTSC says,” says local West Hills resident Melissa Bumstead, who is one of those who has been campaigning for the site to be cleaned up, including launching an online petition signed by 450,000 people.

“DTSC repeatedly minimizes risk from SSFL and has broken every promise it ever made about the SSFL cleanup. Communities throughout the state have also been failed by DTSC. The public has no confidence in this troubled agency,” said Bumstead.

Dr. Bob Dodge, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, which has been also campaigning for the site to be cleaned up for decades, added: “The Woolsey Fire likely released and spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in SSFL’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash.”

Dodge added: “All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.”

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