Harmful Air Quality Brought by Thomas Fire Could Last ‘Weeks to Months’

Catch-22: Air-Cleaning Winds Would Make Firefight More Difficult

Maria Reyes (left) and Soledad Pulido picked up some N95 masks at the Franklin Community Center, made available by the Santa Barbara County Medical Reserve Corps and Direct Relief, on December 8, 2017.
Paul Wellman

Health experts warn that the microscopic particles in the air generated by the Thomas Fire could linger for weeks — if not longer.

Air-quality readings in Santa Barbara have been worse than they have been in nearly 20 years. For several hours last Thursday, the Air Pollution Control District recorded “hazardous” levels in the City of Santa Barbara. In the days since, the readings were determined to be “unhealthy.”

The South Coast's air quality index (AQI) as of December 13 at 3 p.m.

Ash has coated cars and sidewalks. Large white pieces have blanketed Santa Barbara, and brownish-red smoke has hung in the air, giving the South Coast region a sepia tone. Schools and businesses closed, the streets emptied. Most pedestrians walking around downtown sported protective masks, some fastening them on their dogs, too.

The air quality is not expected to go back to normal for “weeks to months,” according to Santa Barbara health experts. Dr. Charity Dean of Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Department advised residents to stay indoors or leave the area ​— ​even for a few hours ​— ​to get relief from the harsh air. She noted there has been a “frantic rush” to pick up N95 masks. Public Health had distributed more than 200,000 as of press time. While they help prevent inhalation of about 95 percent of toxic particles, they are not impervious, she said.

Thomas Fire burning just east of Highway 150 (Dec. 7, 2017)
Paul Wellman

In the last week, Cottage Hospital experienced a “slight increase” in patients with shortness of breath or other respiratory issues. In a five-day period, 99 people checked themselves into the emergency room at one of Cottage’s three locations. In a six-day period, the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics saw 145 patients, and a 12 percent decrease. Doctors predict an increase in patients in the coming days because there is often a lag time between exposure and symptoms. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, headaches, and nausea.

It’s worth noting that the dauntingly hazy atmosphere does not necessarily mean the air quality is worse. Large particles (PM10) of soot, smoke, and dirt can irritate eyes, noses, and throats, but are usually blocked by nose hairs and less prone to penetrate the lungs. But as time passes, these coarse particles could break down into finer pieces, which could be absorbed into the bloodstream and create cardiovascular problems.

Dr. Ann Lee, a pulmonologist at Cottage Hospital, explained that the small and invisible particles are the most harmful. “It’s not what you are smelling,” she said. Suspended in the air for a long time, fine particles do not fall to the ground. “You can’t really blow them away. They’re going to be pretty much everywhere.”

Though the Thomas Fire is torching mostly chaparral and brush, about 921 structures have burned. Of those, the overwhelming majority were in Ventura County. Some structures were old, built with heavy metal and coated with lead paint. Air-quality experts say complete knowledge of all the substances that could be in the air does not exist.

Jonah opts for a respirator to counter the Thomas Fire smoke during his training. (Dec. 7, 2017)
Paul Wellman

While long-term Santa Barbara residents are not strangers to wildfires charring the area’s backcountry and hillside neighborhoods, many say they have never seen smoke and ash this overpowering.

Lyz Hoffman, spokesperson for the Air Pollution Control District, said the agency’s monitors have not recorded “hazardous” levels of PM 2.5 ​— ​particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter ​— ​since 1999, when they began measuring particles that minuscule. The last time the air-quality readings have been nearly this harmful in Santa Barbara County was in in Santa Maria 2001.

“Unlike with some previous wildfires in Santa Barbara County, the smoke from the Thomas Fire hasn’t been going straight up into the air or dispersed to less-populated regions of the county,” Hoffman explained. Instead, it’s blowing right into town. In addition, this fire ​— ​at 237,500 acres as of press time ​— ​is now record size.

Ash and particles can flow into cars or be dragged into homes. Dean told attendees at recent community meetings held in a packed San Marcos High School to refrain from sweeping or operating leaf blowers. Use a wet cloth to clean ash only if absolutely necessary, she said, and drink plenty of water. After all, we are on the verge of flu season, which Dean noted has been severe in Australia.


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