Story at a glance
- Multiple wildfires in Northern California have caused unhealthy atmospheric conditions.
- Experts think it may exacerbate the coronavirus.
As 367 fires burn across Northern California — spurring around 22,000 people to evacuate across parts of Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Lake counties — smoke is billowing into the Bay Area atmosphere, creating the most unhealthy air quality on earth.
Atmospheric testing suggests Northern California’s air quality is among the poorest in the world and has been made worse by southern and easterly winds contributing to the spread of the flames.
The regions with the air quality dubbed "hazardous" or "unhealthy" include Sacramento, Carson City, Bakersfield, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Salinas, San Francisco, Redwood City and Oakland. Smoke from the fires has drifted through northern Nevada and into southeast Oregon and southwest Idaho, tainting air quality in those states as well.
As California battles the series of deadly wildfires, it is also still grappling with outbreaks of COVID-19. These dueling public health crises raise concerns about the effect they will have on residents with respiratory issues, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
“Somebody who already has a cough or is struggling with shortness of breath, the worst thing they can do is be exposed to particulate matter from the smoke,” Tom Dailey, chief of pulmonary medicine at Kaiser’s Santa Clara Medical Center, told reporters.
He also noted that other factors, like the heat wave, exacerbate the flames and airborne pollutants.
“It’s not just the smoke, but we’re in the middle of a heat wave,” Dailey said. “It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pot of water. It keeps the pollutants close to the ground.”
Bay Area Air Quality Management District authorities announced a Spare the Air alert, which recommends that Bay Area residents stay indoors until outdoor air quality improves.
“The air quality will be very poor for the foreseeable future given rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass,” the National Weather Service said in a tweet.
Among the most deadly fires are the SCU Lightning Complex, located east of San Jose, which has burned 137,475 acres and is reportedly only 5 percent contained. Similarly, the LNU Lightning Complex has scorched 124,100 acres and destroyed 105 structures. It is 0 percent contained.
The SCU fire appears to be the most treacherous wildfire Cal Fire has to contend with.
“The SCU Lightning Complex fire is still not even remotely contained,” said Kristina Chu, the acting communications manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “That’s causing the biggest amount of smoke in the Bay Area.”
No research has been conducted that studies how wildfire smoke can affect or exacerbate the coronavirus, but experts think that it may have similar adverse effects akin to smoking, vaping or general air pollution.
“Wildfire smoke is kind of like tobacco smoke without the nicotine,” John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UCSF and environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley, told reporters. “It’s plant-based material that, when burned, produces carbon particles with nasty hydrocarbons that are toxic.”