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California fires: Smoke sends nightmarish air quality south to Bay Area and Sacramento Valley

California fires: Smoke sends nightmarish air quality south to Bay Area and Sacramento Valley
Container ships waiting to be unloaded are seen through a thick haze at the Port of Oakland as smoke from the massive Camp fire drifts south, polluting the air. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

Smoke from the deadly Camp fire has brought nightmarish air quality to the Sacramento Valley and the Bay Area, causing widespread misery as dozens of schools canceled classes and public health officials urged residents to stay inside.

Since the blaze broke out last week, about 100 miles north of the capital, smoke has been pouring into the region, pushing the air quality into the unhealthy zone on the Environmental Protection Agency’s index. That means people with heart or lung diseases, older adults and children should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion outside, while everyone else should reduce outdoor activities.

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“We’re recommending for people to really not be outside,” said Jenny Tan, a spokeswoman for the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District. “Limit the amount of time you are out there.”

Most schools in San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and Folsom said they would be closed Friday. At least six universities in Northern California, including Santa Clara University and Cal State East Bay, canceled classes Thursday.

At Cal State East Bay’s three campuses in Hayward, Oakland and Concord, all classes, work and events were canceled. Only dining halls, residence halls and the campuses’ student health centers remained open, university officials said.

The university said it is monitoring air quality daily to decide when classes will resume. Air quality can change quickly because winds and weather conditions can shift smoke.

“These conditions change and are unpredictable and we are continually monitoring pollution levels,” university officials said in a statement.

“In any case, we should take precautions for the health and welfare of students, staff and faculty. These include checking air quality reports and curtailing or canceling outdoor activities and events as appropriate. Building HVAC systems have been set to recirculate and not draw in outside air.”

At Chico State University, classes were canceled until after Thanksgiving.

“It's kind of freaky to see your whole town wearing air masks and trying to get out of smoke,” freshman Mason West, 18, told the Associated Press. “You can see the particles. Obviously, it's probably not good to be breathing that stuff in.”

At Santa Clara University, classes and events were canceled through the weekend, while the residence halls, campus health center and a library will stay open.

“We continue to pray for all those impacted by the devastation of the fire,” university President Michael Engh said in a statement. “While the fire is nearly 200 miles away from campus, the air quality in our region is impacted. The health and safety of our students is our highest priority.”

Tan said the unhealthy category in the air quality index means that people can experience health problems regardless of age or fitness level.

“Most people may experience symptoms like a runny nose, watery eyes, headaches and difficulty breathing,” she said. The symptoms are more serious for vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly and people with asthma and other health conditions.

Even San Francisco’s iconic open-air cable cars have been pulled off the streets.

The city’s transportation agency said Thursday that because of the poor air quality, “all cable cars will be pulling back into the cable car barn.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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