Special Reports
Bay Area Hit by South's Smoke Blanket

By Julie Sevrens Lyons
Oakland Tribune
October 26, 2007

Smoke from the Southern California fires is everywhere.

It's all along the San Diego coastline, where the sky is a burnt orange. It's
several hundred miles out to sea. And while you may be surprised, it's even here
in the Bay Area, where tiny particles of smoke and soot show up in satellite images.

"There's a heck of a lot of smoke," said Gennet Paauwe, a spokeswoman for the
California Air Resources Board in Sacramento. "And we have a little bit on our doorstep."

But unlike in Southern California, where residents are being cautioned to stay
indoors, not exercise and wear masks outside, Northern California's air is still generally clean.

And forecasters don't expect it to get much worse.

"It's well within the healthy range for all groups, including sensitive groups"
such as asthmatics, said Karen Schkolnick, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air
Quality Management District.

Still, Paauwe said, even in the Bay Area it's important for people with
respiratory or heart problems to take it easy in the next few days and pay
attention to their bodies. "It's better to take caution than to have something
terrible happen," she said.

Smoke from the wildfires contributed, in part, to that layer of haze encircling
the Bay Area Thursday. It even reached as far inland as the San Joaquin Valley.
Even if you can't see it, smoke can pose a problem, experts say. The particulate
matter -- solid particles and liquid droplets -- in smoke are very tiny, about
1/30 the diameter of a human hair. These particles can build up in a person's
respiratory system, causing itchy eyes, runny noses, and aggravating heart and
lung diseases. Fine particles have even been linked to premature deaths in
people with health problems.

In San Diego, where about a dozen fires have burned more than 300,000 acres this
week, sending plumes of thick brown smoke over much of the county, air quality
has reached unhealthy to hazardous levels in some areas. The so-called "air
quality index" is considered good if it falls between 0 and 50. Communities such
as Chula Vista, Del Mar and Otay Mesa were all expected to hit 182 on Thursday.
By comparison, Santa Clara Valley was expected to hover around 36 Thursday and hit 52 today.

"Everywhere you look, it's hazy," said John Lydon, who lives in Santee with his
family. On Sunday, the day the first fires broke out, Lydon's smoke detector
went off while he was carrying groceries inside, even though the closest fire at
that time was still about 15 miles away.

"Even now," he said Thursday, "it doesn't seem to have cleared up that much."

Health experts are cautioning that it could be weeks before air quality improves
in Southern California. After the Cedar Fire swept through that area four years
ago, traces of the smoke lingered for weeks and ashes were kicked up by winds
more than a month later. Even when the smoke is no longer visible, the tiny
particles often linger in the air until a good strong rain washes them away.

"It's probably going to be at least a week -- or two -- before we're talking
normal, healthy levels," said Ross Porter, a spokesman for the American Lung
Association of California. "We want people to realize this is a persistent
condition they're going to be working with through the holidays."

Jennifer Otillio has done everything she can to avoid the bad air. Early Monday,
as the smoke was beginning to choke her northern San Diego County neighborhood,
she packed up her three kids and two dogs and drove her Suburban straight to Los
Gatos, where her parents live.

Four years ago, large fires in San Diego caused problems with her oldest
daughter's asthma. Otillio wasn't going to take any chances this time around.
"My throat hurt Monday morning. You could already feel it," she said. And as
they made their way up Interstate 5, windows tightly closed, "we saw smoke all
the way up until the Grapevine."

As surprising as it might be for many people to hear that smoke can travel so
far, scientists now know it can make its way a heck of a lot farther.

Smoke particles can remain suspended in the air for a very long time, said Tom
Cahill, a professor of physics and atmospheric sciences at the University of
California, Davis. Cahill teamed up with several other researchers to trace the
origin of some air pollution wafting over the Pacific Ocean and determined it
was from a massive dust storm. In China.

"Most of the fine particles at places such as Crater Lake National Park in the
spring are in fact Chinese," Cahill said. "Not just some. Most."

Yet Cahill said he also doesn't anticipate that residents here will see any
negative health effects from the bits of Southern California smoke that have
permeated the Bay Area's upper atmosphere.

It's a far different story down south, where residents have been turning up in
emergency rooms with burning eyes and irritated lungs.

Dr. Thomas M. Dailey, chief of pulmonary medicine at Kaiser Permanente Santa
Clara, said the legacy of these fires won't just be the acres burned or the
homes destroyed.


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