Fire smoke can make air unfit for some

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Hazy skies and the smell of smoke were two signs in Auburn on Monday of fire in the region. The nearest blaze was in Yuba County, where more than five square miles had gone up in smoke. The biggest was in Santa Cruz County, where 11 square miles had burned. Smoke pumped out into the atmosphere hadn’t reached unhealthy levels Monday at monitoring stations the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District operates in Roseville and Grass Valley. Both stations had readings of less than 100 early Monday afternoon. The 100 level is the threshold for people sensitive to fine particulate matter pollution to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Grass Valley had an 84 reading while Roseville was at 58. But Christina Ragsdale, spokesperson for the air quality district, said that the low numbers don’t preclude higher pollution levels in areas where the smoke can settle and stay. “If you see and smell it, you shouldn’t ignore it,” Ragsdale said. “The difficulty with particulate matter is that all you need is a fire and a wind change. Things can change with one new fire.” The Yuba County fire, which ignited Friday about 35 miles northwest of Auburn near Dobbins, was started by burning feathers from a red-tailed hawk that flew into a power line. The ensuing blaze sent a smoke plume into the sky that was visible from Auburn. The most important advice to keep in mind when smoke becomes heavy in or near fire areas is to stay indoors, the American Lung Association advises. Jim Arnold, spokesman for the association, said Monday that the best protection is to avoid exposure and refrain from exercising outdoors – particularly if they smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation. A mask can help reduce the health risk in high smoke areas and a damp cloth option may be an emergency substitute but the best protection is to avoid exposure, Arnold said. Staying indoors means keeping doors, windows and even fireplace dampers shut, with clean air circulating through air conditions or air cleaners and purifiers. Air conditioners should be set on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved into the room, Arnold said. And when driving a car through smoky areas, windows and air vents should be closed. Arnold said vehicle air conditioning should only be operated in the recirculate setting. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at