With fires burning across the region, residents in San Francisco woke up to a sky shrouded in smoke and ash peppering down from above.
The ashes came from smoke that billowed into the atmosphere and then cooled down, according to Roger Gass, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Bay Area. Strong winds would typically blow the smoke out to the ocean, he said. But ashes fell in the region instead due to light winds and the sheer number of fires.
“The effects of climate change are already being felt,” Mayor London Breed said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “And sadly, we know events like these are only going to become more common with drier weather and hotter temperatures. But we will do everything that we can in this city to keep people safe and healthy.”
Unhealthy air quality conditions are expected to persist in the Bay Area at least through Friday, until firefighters have a better handle on the fires, according to Erin DeMerritt, spokesperson at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The air district has extended a Spare the Air alert warning of poor air quality to Sunday, DeMerritt said. Burning wood, manufactured fire logs or other solid fuel is prohibited under the alert. Air quality is worse during overnight and morning hours as smoke settles at ground level.
“Now, we must manage … poor air quality in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said at the news conference. “As we have said with regard to COVID-19 for many months now, the best thing you and your family can do if you are able to is to stay at home.”
Colfax said The City is not currently planning to close any COVID-19 testing sites, though authorities will continue to assess air quality and provide updates if there are changes. Local officials suggested people get tested if they are symptomatic and feel unwell. And Breed anticipated that San Francisco would be removed from the state’s coronavirus watch list Thursday.
Meanwhile, the main fire shifting smoke into the Bay Area, including San Francisco, is one in Point Reyes National Seashore, called the Woodward Fire, according to the National Weather Service.
Light winds from the northwest carrying the smoke are expected to strengthen and persist through Friday.
“These winds are expected to transport fires from the North Bay, particularly from Napa and Marin counties, down across the Peninsula and the East Bay,” DeMerritt said.
The San Francisco Fire Department has sent support to assist with fighting the River Fire located south of Salinas, according to Breed. And the department announced in a tweet Wednesday morning that staff are also now helping fight the LNU Lightning Complex Fire in Vacaville.
Authorities in San Francisco are also distributing N95 masks to people who are unhoused and essential outdoor city workers, according to Mary Ellen Carroll, the executive director of The City’s Department of Emergency Management.
The wildfires and poor air quality highlight the plight of people who are unhoused, said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director at the Coalition on Homelessness. And those who are unhoused are more likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses and other health conditions, Friedenbach said, putting them at higher risk of environmental catastrophes.
“It’s rough for people out there. Yet again, it shines a light on how much disparity we have in The City,” Friedenbach said of the unhoused population. “For literally thousands of people who already can’t shelter in place during COVID, now they have the extra burden of not having respite from smoky air.”
As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, San Jose, Pleasanton and Gilroy had the highest level of fine particulate matter in the air, known as PM2.5, a level that was rated “unhealthy.” San Francisco had lower levels of PM2.5 compared to those areas, and it was rated “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” which includes anyone with an underlying respiratory illness, older adults, children and pregnant women.
PM2.5 is a major pollutant in wildfires, with significant health effects even after short-term exposure, DeMerritt said. It can irritate the eyes and airways of healthy adults, causing cough, scratchy throat and irritated sinuses. Elevated particulate matter can trigger wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound made during breathing, for people with respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“The bandanas, cloth masks and typical surgical masks that are used to protect against the spread of COVID do nothing to protect against wildfire smoke,” DeMerritt said. “Only an N95 respirator would potentially protect an individual from the particulate pollution in wildfire smoke.”
Still, DeMerritt said the agency generally doesn’t recommend using N95 respirators, as there isn’t clear evidence that use by the general population is beneficial for health. The masks are also not available for children and should not be worn by people with facial hair. DeMerritt added that N95 masks may even harm some people with heart or lung conditions as they can lead to increased heart rate and labored breathing.
“The reality is that as we enter wildfire season and changing wind patterns, we will be living with … COVID-19, poor air quality and likely heat events for some time,” Colfax said. “We must stay vigilant and resilient as we take all actions to protect ourselves and our community from the elements.”