Tips for staying safe from poor air quality
By Sam Richards
Friday, Aug. 27 (10:36 a.m.): The Bay Area has already seen several days of thick smoke clouding local skies from various wildfires hundreds of miles away. Its return to Rossmoor and surrounding areas is a virtual certainty.
Particulate matter from that smoke can aggravate health problems for seniors, and others with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, heart disease and high blood pressure. For Rossmoor residents in general, some basic safety measures apply.
“Stay indoors with the doors and windows closed, and if the air conditioning is on, set it to ‘recirculate,’” said Ralph Borrmann, a public information officer with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Added Tom Cashion, Rossmoor’s public safety manager: “The N95 is the only mask that will work with the smoke particles.” The lighter paper or fabric face masks that have literally been the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cashion said, are of virtually no use in protecting against the smoke particles that cause health problems.
In any event, Cashion said, “Staying inside is a better option than going out into the smoke with an N95 mask.”
The smoke that has at times enveloped the Bay Area has come from wildfires including the Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe, the McFarland Fire in Trinity and Tehama counties and the Dixie Fire, in Plumas, Butte and Lassen counties in the northeast section of the state. This summer, the worst day was Aug. 6, when the Interstate 680 corridor suffered through moderately unhealthy levels of smoke.
Borrmann said smoke contains particulate so small – at 2.5 microns, about 1/25th the width of a human hair – that it can get deep into people’s lungs and even into the bloodstream. That, Borrmann said, can aggravate various health problems.
Weather-wise, wind patterns are the main driver for moving smoke from wildfires hundreds, even thousands, of miles. Eleanor Dhuyvetter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey, said the patterns that tend to send wildfire smoke far from what’s burning are “upper-level troughs” that lift warmer air – which smoke usually is – high enough to be carried by wind patterns miles above ground.
It’s hard to forecast wind patterns more than two or three days ahead, Dhuyvetter said. “Once you get into the longer term, that gets a bit more tricky to forecast.”
The air quality district issues “Spare the Air” advisories when worsening air quality could occur, Borrmann said, and Spare the Air alerts when the bad conditions have arrived.
In Rossmoor, 12 air quality monitoring stations operated by the company AirPurple collect specific particulate-matter data using laser particle counters. The results from the Rossmoor monitors, and from hundreds of others around the Bay Area, can be seen using maps at airpurple.com.
The monitors, Cashion said, are at the MOD complex, Gateway, Creekside, Dollar, The Waterford and in residential neighborhoods, and provide real-time Rossmoor-specific information.
Information that can be considered a potential health concern can be distributed to Rossmoor residents via GRF’s Nixle alert system, Cashion said. Residents can sign up for Nixle alerts by clicking on the Nixle link at the bottom of Rossmoor.com under “Quick Links.”
Rossmoor officials are taking other steps, as well, to buffer residents from smoke and wildfire threats. Rossmoor works with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District to create firebreaks in the hills above the community to prevent wildfires close to home, and there are monthly presentations to the community about keeping property as protected as possible from wildfires.
Also, the Gateway Center can quickly be turned into a “clean air center,” with its needlepoint bipolar ionization air-purifying equipment installed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (all Rossmoor public spaces are so equipped).
The city of Walnut Creek was also, as of press time, “in discussions” to establish at least one similar “clean air center” near Rossmoor, according to city spokeswoman Betsy Burkhart.
Cashion said Rossmoor leaders will continue to do what they can do help keep residents as safe as possible. He added, “There’s also an element of personal responsibility here, too.”