S.F. officials scramble to create ‘clean air centers’ ahead of looming wildfire season

Air filtration programs are designed to help The City’s most vulnerable communities

When Stephen Tennis awoke to orange skies blanketed by wildfire smoke two years ago, he, like so many San Franciscans, greeted the September day with stunned disbelief.

But for Tennis, who lives in a Single Occupancy Hotel (SRO) in the Tenderloin, it wasn’t just this new, apocalyptic vision of San Francisco that haunted him. As the thick smoke settled across The City, it seeped into his apartment, and eventually, his lungs.

“I think I’m in really good shape,” said the 73-year old. “But during those days, I don’t think it mattered. I was coughing all the time. I had terrible headaches.”

Clean air is among the hardest things to come by during wildfire season — it’s also one of the most essential. But for residents who can’t afford to flee to second homes or purchase filtration systems, wildfire season is becoming yet another health hazard that places an undue burden on communities that already bear the brunt of industrial emissions and other pollutants.

“We’ve had a number of unprecedented wildfires, and each time we’re reminded of how precious the air is to our lungs,” said Areana Flores, senior staff specialist at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “Unfortunately, while some have the ability to seek refuge, others do not.”

That’s why Bay Area agencies such as the air district are working to outfit schools, libraries and community centers in vulnerable communities with advanced air filtration systems and portable air filters to create a network of clean air centers in the Bay Area before this year’s fire season begins.

The Clean Air Centers program, established by Assembly Bill 836, is a five-year pilot which set aside $5 million statewide toward upgrades to ventilation systems and the deployment of portable air cleaners. The air district secured $3 million of the total funding for the Bay Area in part because it co-sponsored the legislation.

But this effort is running up against a ticking clock as fire experts anticipate another smokey summer. Fire season is also likely to start earlier this year thanks to climate change.

“Things seem to be in alignment for another active fire season,” said Brent Wachter, a fire meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “I’m seeing the possibility of that alignment coming as early as May.”

This is partly due to a flammable combination of dead vegetation carpeting forest floors and other plants which are drying out earlier in the season because of shifting growing seasons brought on by a warming world. Complicating these conditions, a persistent La Niña weather pattern is likely to continue into the summer months, said Wachter, bringing more dry and windy conditions to the state.

“Those are like a kiss of death,” said Watcher. If these ignitions align, he said, “I think you’re going to see, on the news, some pretty devastating fires.”

Health experts are also sounding the alarm as the number of days with extreme wildfire has doubled in recent years due to warming temperatures. “There is no safe aspect of wildfire smoke,” said Kari Nadeau, professor of pediatric food allergy, immunology and asthma at Stanford University during a webinar on the topic. Exposure to wildfire smoke for over five to seven days can cause damage to the lungs, blood and heart, and cause strokes, she said.

Still, not everyone is exposed equally, which is why this air district’s pilot is prioritizing vulnerable populations to determine where air filters are needed most. The district has been soliciting community feedback through an interactive map while also using a statewide system tool called CalEnviroscreen that helps identify communities most affected by sources of pollution.

But some say certain communities have been left off the map entirely. That’s why a handful of local groups, including the environmental justice nonprofit Brightline Defense, are working to get air filters into the hands of residents like Tennis, who have been overlooked by state mapping tools.

“Currently, the definition of ‘vulnerable populations’ does not fully capture San Francisco’s frontline communities in need of air filtration,” said Eddie Ahn, Brightline’s executive director. Specifically, he said, CalEnviroscreen fails to account for the unique and specific needs of Single Room Occupancy tenants in the Tenderloin, SoMa and the Mission.

“In an ideal world there would be fresh air breathing centers” throughout the Tenderloin year-round, said Tennis, who added that it’s not just wildfire smoke, but emissions from traffic that plague the community. “I think a dozen is not enough.”

It’s unlikely, however, Tennis’s hopes will be realized — at least this year. Air district staff acknowledge the pilot program may fall short of keeping everyone safe this fire season. “I can tell you right now that the funding is not enough,” said Flores. “One retrofit costs hundreds of thousands,” referencing the upgrades to public facilities.

But, she said, the learnings from this program could lay the foundation for more clean air centers to come. “This is a pilot. This is how the state will get to know that this investment only gives you this much,” she said.

In the meantime, while maps are drafted and air filters are rolled out, residents like Tennis will be kept waiting for a breath of fresh air.

“The Tenderloin is always last to the trough; get the last nipple, so to speak,” he said. “We’re always the last ones.

And I would like to see that change.”


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