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Northern California fire brings worst air quality in the world to residents hundreds of miles away

Northern California fire brings worst air quality in the world to residents hundreds of miles away
Tashi Nacario and Samantha Salas don masks to deal with the smoke from the Camp fire that shrouds the state Capitol on Thursday in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Smoke from the Camp fire — California’s deadliest wildfire in recorded history — has poured into communities hundreds of miles away, filling the sky with dangerous particles, grayish hues and a bitter odor. The smoke has also dropped temperatures as much as 10 degrees because the haze is blotting out the sun.

It also has led to dangerous and unhealthy air quality.

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Since the blaze broke out last week, communities in the Sacramento Valley and Bay Area — including Chico, Oroville and Sacramento — have had some of the dirtiest air in the world, according to Purple Air, an air-quality monitoring network.

Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit that tracks air-quality data, said Friday that San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento ranked as the world’s three most polluted cities.

The hazardous air quality in Northern California, which rated worse than cities in India and China, has disrupted life for thousands of people not directly affected by the fire and also means that people in any age group could face health problems.

Dozens of schools have canceled classes, and public health officials are warning people to avoid the outdoors, especially those with heart or lung diseases and older adults and children.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s index, which has ranked the air quality in the region in the unhealthy zone, warns that those who go outside could experience runny nose, watery eyes and difficulty breathing.

Tunisia Wiggins, 40, had a 3M mask strapped securely to her face as she took a walk around downtown Sacramento during her lunch break on Friday.

Wiggins said the smoke really has taken a toll on her the past few days. When she drives, she avoids turning on her car heater because of terrible air quality, even though the temperatures have dropped into the 30s in the early morning.

“It’s the fatigue. Sometimes my eyes burn and I get short of breath,” said Wiggins, who works as a clerk at a CHP station in Sacramento. “When I wear the mask, I don’t feel too bad.”

Weather forecasters don’t anticipate the air quality to improve within the next several days.

In the 11 years that Eric Kurth has worked as a meteorologist with the National Weather Service he’s never seen such dirty air.

“I’ve seen a lot of wildfires in California, and we did have smokey conditions, but I did not see the levels as bad as they are now,” he said.

A confluence of factors, including an earlier fire season and strong inversion layer that traps cold air, has kept the thick smoke and ash from the Camp fire in the region far longer than normal.

“The Camp fire is the type of fire that we would have typically had in the summer months and usually the smoke would get blown away,” Kurth said. “But the inversion layer acts like a lid and keeps the smoke in the area.”

Because heavy smoke and hazardous air quality are expected to continue throughout next week, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District warned residents Thursday that it’s illegal for them to use their fireplaces, wood stoves and any other solid fuel.

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To mitigate the problem, communities throughout the region, such as South San Francisco and Daly City, have also been handing out masks to residents who venture outdoors.

Fire stations in Sacramento had distributed around 67,000 N95 masks to the public before the city announced Friday that it would stop, due to health concerns.

Health officials consider N95 or N100 respirator masks the most effective at protecting people from harmful pollutants, but say it can be dangerous for children and those with heart and respiratory diseases.

Kelly Ash of Sacramento said the biggest impact has been at home.

Ash, the Capitol director for Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside), said she’s kept her 19-month-old son and 4-year-old daughter cooped up in the house.

That’s been a little trying, she said, but it’s nothing compared with what everyone directly affected by the wildfires has been going through.

Ash said she and her husband, who is a master sergeant at nearby Beale Air Force Base, bought an air purifier for their Sacramento home as a precaution.

“They’re all inside all day,” said Ash, 35. “They’re going stir crazy, but it’s better than losing your home.”

3:44 p.m.: This article was updated with information from Sacramento residents affected by the smoke.

This article was originally published at 3:10 p.m.

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