Thomas Fire Creating ‘Hazardous’ Air-Quality Conditions in Santa Barbara

Mussel Shoals residents (from left) Dan Reddick and Ginny and Joe Crotty "watch with fingers crossed" as the Thomas Fire burns in the foothills across the freeway on December 6, 2017.
Paul Wellman

[Update: Thursday, 11:49 a.m.] The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has noted a total of three locations where N95 face masks can be picked up for free:

  • Franklin Community Center (1136 E Montecito St.) from 1-4:30 p.m.
  • Costco in Goleta from 11-4:30 p.m.
  • Carpinteria City Hall from 11:30-4 p.m.

The department also warned that ordinary dust masks and surgical masks are not effective.

[Original story: Thursday, 10:14 a.m.] Smoke and ash drifting west from the Thomas Fire in Ventura County have created “hazardous” air-quality conditions along the South Coast, according to readings taken Thursday morning by monitoring stations managed by the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District (APCD).

At 7 a.m., the Santa Barbara station measured 373 micrograms of PM10 (particulate matter smaller than 10 microns in diameter) and 220 micrograms of PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter) in the air. The APCD, which follows federal Environmental Protection Agency standards, describes levels of 301-500 as “hazardous” and 201-300 as “very unhealthy.” (PM2.5 particles, or “fine particulates,” are generally considered a more serious health concern than PM10 as smaller particles can travel deeper into the lungs.) “Hazardous” is the APCD’s highest level of warning.

The APCD’s monitoring station in Goleta measured 269 micrograms of PM10 (“very unhealthy”) and 184 of PM2.5 (“unhealthy”) at 9 a.m. Data for Carpinteria was not immediately available.

The APCD has advised residents across the county to limit their time outdoors and avoid activities that stir up ash. People should keep their home and office windows closed, and prevent air circulation from the outside, said APCD spokesperson Lyz Hoffman. Drivers should switch their car’s air system to “recirculate” mode.

For those forced to work or venture outside today, the Santa Barbara County Reserve Medical Corps has begun distributing free N95 face masks from the Camino Real Marketplace in Goleta. They’re stationed in front of Costco and near the movie theater. The masks were donated by Direct Relief. The Corps is in the process of setting up other distribution sites in Santa Barbara.

Hoffman warned that wrapping scarves or sweaters around one’s face is not an effective way to filter out smoke or fine particles. N95 masks offer a bit of protection but only for short periods of time, she said. They are not meant to work on children, and adults with respiratory conditions should consult their doctor before wearing one as they reduce airflow. And, Hoffman explained, “It’s really important for people to follow the instructions, because if it’s not fitted, it’s not going to work.”

The CVS on West Carrillo Street has sold out of N95 masks but is expected to receive more later today. The CVS on lower State Street has also sold out and doesn’t expect another shipment for several days. Rite Aid and Home Improvement Center have exhausted their supplies as well. Home Depot is expecting to receive a shipment before noon.

High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters can be purchased to help remove ash, soot, and dust from inside air. The APCD suggests keeping the device in one room to serve as a “clean-air room.” Because the air overall is very dry due to low humidity, health officials advise staying hydrated by drinking lots of water and avoiding caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.


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