The San Francisco skyline viewed from Alcatraz, during a clear day (top), and during a smoke storm on 16 November 2018 (bottom). Top and Bottom are the same shot taken a week apart. Photo: marcstokes79 / Instagram

By Amanda Mull
17 November 2018

(The Atlantic) – The particulates in smoke don’t destroy homes. They don’t down trees. But in the case of wildfires, smoke’s impacts—and dangers—can reach hundreds of miles further than the flames themselves. As of Friday evening, the Camp Fire raging in Butte County, north of the San Francisco Bay Area, has a death toll of 71 and has left more than 1,000 people unaccounted for. The fire’s smoke, meanwhile, has been endangering the health of millions of of Northern Californians.

Northern California had some of the worst air quality in the world at the end of this week, with levels of hazardous airborne particulate soaring. With that has come a variety of public-health moves to keep residents safe in the region’s most populated areas. There have been widespread school and university closures. Many businesses have urged employees to work from home. Some public transit in San Francisco has been made free, in an effort to keep people inside as much as possible if they must commute.

In a region whose weather is usually pretty temperate, smoke days have become the Bay Area’s version of snow days. But instead of a joyful respite from work, wildfire smoke mixes a blizzard’s large-scale logistical nightmares with the anxiety of worsening climate change and a class divide that plagues American public health. Three of the five largest fires on record in California have occurred in the past three years, all in the northern part of the state. For the region’s residents, smoke days won’t go away once the Camp Fire is contained.

The risk posed by wildfire smoke is significant, and it goes far beyond a few days of coughing or headaches. According to Kristie Ebie, a professor of global public health at the University of Washington, the consequences of breathing wildfire smoke extend to other parts of the body because of the noxious nature of the tiny debris the smoke carries with it. “That affects not only people’s lungs, but it gets absorbed into people’s systems,” she says. Recent research shows that absorption can lead to cardiac arrest, stroke, and other deadly outcomes.

With kids home from school, people working from home, and few safe ways to leave the house, Northern Californians are looking for any outlet available to find some relief. “It’s very challenging, because everyone’s cooped up,” said Aubrey Hirsch as she sat on the floor of a Berkeley public library and built a Lego boat with her son, whose school closed on Friday. The boy was happy to be have the day off, but Hirsch, a writer, lost a day of work.

Local officials have encouraged people to seek libraries as a safe destination for those who need or want to leave their homes, and especially for those who don’t have in-home air filtration or air conditioning, which can help cycle out smoke that seeps in. On Friday morning, every seat at the Berkeley library’s regularly scheduled story time was full. [more]

Smoke Days Are Now California's Snow Days

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