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Crestline’s Air Quality May Take Breath Away

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On those hot and smoggy days in the cities down below--and this summer is proving worse than last--just imagine the clean air embracing this San Bernardino Mountains resort community, as bucolic as any.

That’s what you’ll have to do, because this little town--with its cabins and A-frame homes, its lovely, lofty pines and its little lake enjoyed by anglers and paddle-boaters alike--is enveloped in more ozone than any other place in Southern California.

Worse than Burbank and Azusa, Van Nuys and Glendora, Riverside and Pomona.

“Really?” asked a disbelieving Kevin Yuruki, who brought his son from Anaheim for a day of fishing. “Geez, that’s surprising.”

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Said a county parks employee: “Maybe they had a truck running next to the monitoring station when they took those measurements.” He then refused to give his name for fear that his cynicism toward another bureaucratic agency might get him in trouble.

But, indeed, for all the places where air quality is monitored by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, this town above San Bernardino reigns No. 1 on the ozone charts, king of the hill because it’s near the top of the hill.

Crestline is the victim, not the culprit. The ozone is created west of here, then wafts easterly with the afternoon sea breeze. Its lung-invading toxins cook in the afternoon sun before settling in over Crestline, which at 4,700-foot elevation sits just below a hot summer day’s inversion layer that serves as a high-pressure lid to contain sour basin air.

Although this weather phenomenon afflicts other foothill and lower mountain communities, Crestline seems to get the worst of it.

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“It’s a misnomer that going up into the mountains will get you the cleanest air,” said Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist for the air quality agency. You need to get above 5,000 feet--Big Bear is good--to really avoid smog.

“That’s why I moved up here--for the beautiful, clean, pristine air,” said Peter Haisler, who thought he had been benefiting from Crestline’s air for the past 11 years. “From up here, you can look down below and see all their gunk.”

Because ozone is invisible, it’s easy to assume that mountain air is pure--especially when looking down to the “gunk” that shrouds the valley floor.

That haze is caused by dust and other particulates, the other major partner in smog. It has different deleterious health effects and serves as the most visible reminder of smog.

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Ozone is a mixture of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide, the stuff emitted by automobiles, factories, even opening a can of paint or solvent. It tightens the chest, burns the eyes. Some residents say they’ve developed asthma after moving here.

Kim Wright moved to Crestline four years ago from Lancaster “because I wanted the quiet, I wanted to avoid traffic and I wanted good air,” she said. “Now I have asthma, but I’m not sure what’s caused it. Maybe the pollen.”

Another resident, Nancy Landford, is all but bed-bound by her asthma. She moved here four years ago from Perris “because I wanted all that oxygen from the trees around here,” but now she complains that her breaths are shorter than ever.

Crestline’s ozone problem is relative, given that Southern California’s smog problem has improved remarkably over the past four decades.

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In the mid-1970s, it was not unusual for cities in the San Fernando, San Gabriel and San Bernardino valleys--and for Crestline --to have first-stage smog alerts more than 60 days a year (when the level of ozone in the air exceeds 0.20 parts per million for at least one hour).

By comparison, Crestline had first-stage smog alerts only four times in 1996--but that was still more than any other place in Southern California. Last summer, a Stage 1 smog alert was declared on only one day, for Crestline as well as a handful of other places.

So far this year, there have been seven days when Crestline recorded first-stage smog alerts. On only one of those days, July 16, were other cities also put on a Stage 1 alert.

The alert is declared if the ozone standards are exceeded for any one hour of the day. Is it possible that places like Crestline might have just one or two bad hours of ozone--as the afternoon wind blows the foul air through town--but actually have clean air most of the day?

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New federal guidelines now call for noting lower levels of ozone--but over an extended eight-hour period, to monitor sustained exposure to ozone. AQMD officials applied those new standards to last year’s numbers, curious to see how communities in Southern California compared to one another.

The conclusion: The east San Gabriel Valley (with a monitoring station in Glendora) experienced 79 days last year that would have exceeded the new standard for prolonged ozone exposure. Alas, Crestline ranked second, with 74 days of prolonged exposure to ozone.

Crestline’s civic leaders are not thrilled by its smog notoriety, even though it is kept somewhat under wraps. The AQMD divides Southern California into regions, and Crestline shows up in reports simply as the “central San Bernardino Mountains.” That region extends from Crestline to Arrowbear, about 20 miles to the east.

But it so happens that the AQMD’s monitoring station is on the shoreline at Lake Gregory, in the heart of Crestline. On gorgeous summer days, children frolic in the water and anglers appear, well, blissfully bored, and everyone probably assumes that the air couldn’t be finer.

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Mention “ozone” to Cynthia Fargo, director of the Crestline Resorts Chamber of Commerce, and she takes a cleansing breath and reaches for her smog file.

She denies nothing. But let’s be fair, she said, ozone levels are waaaay down from the bad years.

And she uses the ozone crown to promote civic action: “Up here, we live in a beautiful mountain environment, and sometimes we forget about some of the world’s issues, such as air quality. This is an opportunity for us to address the issue and see how we can help, even in our own little community.”

Others are hardly so noble.

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“That’s life,” said Shawn Holt, who with her son was fishing for trout by the lake. “I moved up here from Moreno Valley six years ago, because the schools are better, there’s fewer people, it’s just overall a better quality of life. Ozone? Life’s full of trade-offs.”

Nearby, Frank Gramer, a retired Caltrans worker, waved off the problem. “Smog doesn’t bother me. I like to taste and smell the air so I can tell if I’m alive and breathing.”


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