Here's when Bay Area might see air quality improvement as wildfire risk increases

ByGloria Rodríguez, Stephanie Sierra, and Suzanne Phan, Lena Howland KGO logo
Thursday, September 21, 2023
Here's when air quality could improve as wildfire risk increases
A Spare the Air Alert has been issued for the San Francisco Bay Area through Thursday due to wildfires burning in Northern California and Oregon.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A Spare the Air Alert is in effect for Wednesday and Thursday because of smoke coming into the region from wildfires further north in California and Oregon.

At a virtual news conference, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said we can expect unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups through Thursday.

They also said we could still see possible impacts from the fires on Friday.

Track air quality levels with our interactive map below.

For a better experience, click here to view the full map in a new window

They say wildfire smoke is difficult to predict due to factors such as wind that can impact how it'll behave when it arrives in the Bay Area.

A Fire Weather Watch goes up on Wednesday from 11 p.m. until 11 a.m. Thursday for the North Bay Hills and until 6 p.m. for Solano County.

Winds could gust up to 40 mph in the higher elevations. The low humidity and gusty winds will mean any fires that break out will grow quickly.

ABC7 Meteorologist Sandhya Patel says it will likely take until Friday for the Bay Area to see improved air quality.

Possible PG&E power shutoff

It is now looking more likely that PG&E will shut off power to some homes Wednesday or Thursday to reduce the risk of wildfires as the wind kicks up.

A Public Safety Power Shutoff Watch was elevated to the highest level, a warning, late this afternoon.

PG&E says a PSPS is possible in eight counties including far north Napa County and parts of Lake County.

How to protect yourself

Seeing or smelling smoke? Well, it's from wildfires burning in Northern California and Oregon. High winds are causing a Fire Weather Watch and could possibly force PG&E shutoffs.

Experts say if you need to, stay indoors and keep your windows closed if possible or seek out a cooling center.

Anyone who smells smoke is advised to stay inside with windows and doors closed and to set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to stop outside air from coming inside, according to the air district.

Stanford University infectious disease researcher and physician Dr. Abraar Karan said N-95 masks can help.

MORE: Track wildfires across San Francisco Bay Area, other parts of California with this interactive map

"These will prevent and reduce the amount of these small fine particles that you're inhaling, and this will make it so that it's less likely you get these symptoms, acute symptoms, almost allergy-like, or just trouble breathing and in the long term," Dr. Karan said. "The less we are inhaling this during these big fires, the better it will be for us."

In fact, Dr. Karan said tools we use to protect us from COVID-19 can help protect us from wildfire smoke.

"We know that with the changing environment, with an increase in these extreme weather-related events, utilizing the things that we learned from COVID, like using at-home air purifiers, for instance, is something that can be applied even to outdoor air events like big wildfires where the smoke is coming into your house," Dr. Karan said.

He recommends using air purifiers and an indoor air quality monitor.

In San Francisco's North Beach at Cole Hardware Store, people were been stopping in and buying face masks Tuesday.

"I've had a couple come in but I expect more to come in shortly," said Store employee Frank O'Connell.

Residents react to the smoke

People all around the Bay Area have been seeing, smelling, and feeling the smoke.

On Tuesday, you could hardly see the Bay Bridge and from the port of Oakland, it was tough to see the San Francisco skyline.

"It's really bad. Usually, you can see East Bay," said Shruy Sethi of San Francisco.

"It's very smoky. It smells like a campfire," said Sarah Ryherd, another San Francisco resident.

Others said they could feel it in their throat and began wearing masks.

MORE: California wildfires: Expert says get used to smoky skies, bad air quality for decades to come

In the East Bay, some high schools canceled sports practices because of the bad air quality.

But Wednesday morning others down the Peninsula were practicing.

"It's definitely noticeable but it's not too bad," said Sacred Heart Prep student Timmy Donatelli, who practiced lacrosse with teammates in Palo Alto Wednesday morning. "I think last year, the fires were a lot worse but it's not too bad, especially in the morning."

"It's been pretty crazy," said teammate Blake Hetherington. "I mean, I had a workout yesterday. I walked outside and the smoke was everywhere. And you could really tell that it was in the air and you can definitely tell it's hurting our environment right now. So yeah, not good."

South Bay residents mask up amid smoky skies

"It was super hazy. It was like yellow. But today, it wasn't quite as bad. Maybe because I had the mask on," said Phillippi.

In the South Bay, the lingering effects canceled some sports practices but didn't stop everyone from spending time outside.

Hundreds of people are enjoying Oktoberfest in downtown Redwood City tonight.

The five-day event runs through Sunday even in spite of how smoky it is outside.

"We have a couple of people in masks. But everyone seems pretty comfortable," said organizer Brandon Council.

A few miles away, at Red Morton Park, also in Redwood City, soccer practice was canceled for Austin Woodworth's 7-year-old daughter.

Woodworth says the smoke seemed worse on Tuesday.

Pickle ball player Ben Phillippi decided to take the extra step and mask up during his match. The smoke from Tuesday really got to him.

"It was super hazy. It was like yellow. But today, it wasn't quite as bad. Maybe because I had the mask on," said Phillippi.

Al Contreras says his son and 100 other kids with Redwood City 49ers are going through regular practice this Wednesday night despite the smoky skies.

Wednesday morning, the smoke created a golden hue in Palo Alto. The horizon - as expected - was filled with smoke.

In San Jose, you could see the haze across the skies - but there were no significant delays for flights.

East Bay businesses, schools make adjustments amid poor air quality

The Lake School, a preschool near Oakland's Lake Merritt, made the difficult choice to close early, calling for the early pickup of around 40 kids.

In the East Bay, schools and businesses are making adjustments amid poor air quality conditions.

The Lake School, a preschool near Oakland's Lake Merritt, made the difficult choice to close early, calling for the early pickup of around 40 kids.

"And they were only able to play for about two hours before we had to send them home early," Stephanie Long, Interim Head of School at The Lake School said.

This happened when the Air Quality Index hit 150.

"When we're inside the classrooms, we like ventilation with all of the windows open to stop the spread of illness, when we have this bad air quality, we have to have everything shut down, and air filters running, but when it reaches the point of red, it's do we stay inside and maybe pass illnesses or do we try to have early pickups and really just keep everyone safe?" Long said.

Minutes away, Children's Fairyland, making a similar decision to close its gates early at 1 p.m.

Up until that point, they were offering masks to guests as they entered.

"With the wind, we're seeing that the smell hasn't stayed so stagnant but we can see it in the air, it's very thick with the clouds," Summer Cunningham, a Fairyland volunteer said.

Cunningham said she kept her mask on the whole time.

"We're both really sensitive to the smell, I currently can get headaches, Maddie here has a hard time with breathing, it definitely provides a lot of discomfort," she said.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Unified School District is instituting its poor air quality day protocols.

"We've been informing our staff to keep windows closed in classrooms, keep their air filters on high and to make sure that they are keeping anyone who is really sensitive to air pollution, people maybe with asthma or other things, inside," John Sasaki, a spokesperson for OUSD said.

Sasaki says if the air quality index reaches 151 or higher, all activities will be moved indoors.

But OUSD tries to avoid canceling school altogether.

"And when we have them in school, we know we can keep them inside, they won't be going outside to play, they won't be going outside to hangout with friends or anything like that," he said. "And so we know that if they're at school, they're a bit more protected, at least in certain circumstances than they might be if they were elsewhere, so we're very hesitant to actually cancel school."

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