Smoky air brings out masks, bad air alert extended through weekend

San Francisco school principals instructed students to stay indoors, while bicyclists and others donned masks to fend off the smoke-filled air that dominated the region Friday as three major fires burn in California.

In an unusual move, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued a Winter Spare the Air Alert from today all the way through Monday because of heavy smoke and particulates drifting into the Bay Area from the so-called Camp Fire which continues to rage in Butte County.

“The entire Bay Area is impacted,” said Walter Wallace, a BAQMD spokesperson. “The Northern Bay Area most significantly, but in San Francisco we’re seeing elevated levels. We recommend limiting exposure outside.”

All San Francisco Unified School District schools were instructed Friday to keep students indoors and to keep all windows and doors closed. All gym classes and sport activities were held indoors and minimized.

All varsity football games in the city of San Francisco were postponed to Saturday, due to poor air quality, according to a call received by coaches in the Academic Athletic Association.

In addition, the National Weather Service has simultaneously issued a red flag warning and a frost warning for the region this weekend — fire danger is high for the Santa Cruz Mountains, the North Bay and the East Bay hills because of windy, dry conditions in the forecast, yet frost is also likely because of overnight temperatures dropping into the low 30s Saturday morning, mainly in the North Bay and southern Salinas valleys.

Unhealthy air quality conditions are expected to persist through Monday and perhaps longer as northeasterly winds, forecast for the weekend, will continue to drive smoke this way. In addition, a continuing high-pressure system over Northern California is trapping the bad air at ground level.

“SFUSD is monitoring the air quality index for the City and County of San Francisco,” said Laura Dudnick, an SFUSD spokesperson. “Principals are getting regular updates regarding precautions they should take, including monitoring students with asthma and other health conditions.”

Schools will excuse a student’s absence if a parent wishes to keep their child home for the day because of health reasons related to air quality.

“If you have young children or people who are elderly, they are more vulnerable to the pollution we’re seeing,” Wallace said, “With young children, they tend to breathe faster than adults. Because they breathe faster they are going to be more affected by the air pollution.”

Wallace also recommended staying inside today with windows and doors closed.

“If you’re travelling in a vehicle, be sure the air is on recirculate so you’re not pulling in air from outside,” he said.

The alert was issued Thursday night in response to the Camp Fire, which as of Thursday night had burned approximately 20,000 acres and was zero percent contained, according to Cal Fire officials.

Heavy smoke from the fire is causing elevated levels of particulate pollution in the region and is especially impacting the North Bay and East Bay, officials said. As of Friday morning, there were three major wildfires burning in California, including two in Southern California.

“The wind pattern from the fire are very unpredictable,” Wallace said. “It might not seem bad one hour, but it could change within an hour. Be aware it’s unpredictable, and the Bay Area as a whole is pretty much completely affected.”

The Spare the Air Alert bans the indoor and outdoor burning of wood and other solid fuels.

“We know that if people are burning firewood it will add to the [particulate matter] levels, which are already elevated,” Wallace said.

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