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With wildfire (and smoke) season at hand, residents need to be prepared

By Sam Richards
Staff writer

With East Bay firefighters and air quality officials bracing for more and bigger vegetation fires in a new era of “extreme weather,” contending with smoke from blazes near and far figures to become a more frequent hazard.

Residents of seniors communities like Rossmoor, some experts say, must be especially vigilant. And while fires may prompt mandatory evacuations if the threat is severe enough, smoke from fires – even if the flames themselves are hundreds of miles from this community’s boundaries – may prompt some Rossmoor residents to evacuate themselves voluntarily.

Photo by Contra Costa County Fire Protection District A grass fire Tuesday, June 25 off Ygnacio Valley Road between Homestead Avenue and Crosby Court in Walnut Creek near the Diablo Hills Golf Course burned about 15 acres, and came within a few feet of some structures.

“Many seniors already have respiratory conditions, and smoke from a fire could be especially harmful,” said Kristine Roselius, a communications manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which monitors air quality throughout the area, promotes measures to keep air clean and enforces air pollution regulations.

Roselius said seniors who can’t drive themselves to a place with cool, filtered air – a friend’s or relative’s home, a senior center or an indoor shopping mall or city-operated cooling center – should have a plan worked out in advance with family or friends to get to such a place. Rossmoor’s Emergency Preparedness Organization offers tips and resources online to help residents at

Better preparations

Last November’s Camp Fire burned more than 153,000 acres, mostly in Butte County, but the smoke from that wildfire extended hundreds of miles from there, choking much of the Bay Area, including Contra Costa County.

State officials are gearing up for the prospect of more such wildfires. In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a 12-month State of Emergency to accelerate forest management projects to better protect 200 of California’s most wildfire-vulnerable communities.

Officials from the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District held a press conference in Rossmoor in the spring to stress the importance of clearing brush to create “defensible space” around buildings and roadways and reduce the danger of fire closer to home.

In late June, about 15 acres of vegetation off Ygnacio Valley Road in Walnut Creek, near the Diablo Hills Golf Course and John Muir Medical Center, burned. Multiple homes were threatened, the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District said, but a quick response and good weed abatement on the affected properties made a difference in sparing structures.

Dangers of smoke

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the biggest health threat from smoke comes from the fine particles produced when something burns. These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis. It’s these fine particles that can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases.

For people with heart disease, smoke could trigger chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue. People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing, increased phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Seniors are generally more at-risk to the danger of smoke than are younger people, Roselius said, because seniors are more likely to have existing heart or lung disease.

Air quality awareness

One way to stay on top of the situation is to pay attention to local air quality reports. For residents of Rossmoor and surrounding areas, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s website ( is a good resource.

If the smoke is thick and visible – anything close to what East Bay air looked like last November – staying inside is the best option. Keep your windows and doors closed; run your air conditioner, if you have one, with the fresh air intake closed (and/or set to “recirculation”). Clean the filter frequently, too, to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.

For seniors without air conditioning, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. Keeping the windows open may be preferable to keeping the smoke out, if it is hot enough; better than having to make that choice, Roselius said, is to travel to an air-conditioned space if at all possible.

And just because the air around you may not look smoky or otherwise unhealthy, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Roselius said the air district issues “Spare the Air” alerts when conditions are ripe for smog or ozone pollution. While ozone is not as obvious in the skies as is smoke, the conditions that escalate fire danger – especially hot weather – also result in high levels of ozone.

Finding the right mask

Anyone who has to spend time outside in unhealthy concentrations of smoke should wear respiratory protection. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a comparison of several kinds of respirator masks (

During worst Camp Fire smoke days in the East Bay, “N95” respirator masks were commonly worn. They are designed to filter out 95 percent of particles sized 0.3 microns. These masks, which should fully seal with one’s face, are considered the minimum needed protection for “extreme air events.”

These respirator masks should have the letters “NIOSH” stamped next to the rating. That stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and such a stamp indicates the mask received that agency’s approval.

Roselius cautioned that these masks only work if they are worn correctly and if their seal on one’s face is tight. People with facial hair usually can’t achieve that tight seal, she said, and neither can young children.

Standard respirator masks for humans do not help dogs and cats; their faces are shaped differently, and need a differently shaped mask to provide a suitable seal. Such pet-specific masks are out there; one place to find them is