Air quality is dangerously poor in parts of inland Mendocino County due to smoke from the fires raging in Mendocino National Forest and Lake and Sonoma Counties and according to a National Weather Service meteorologist, smoke will likely persist as long as the recent fires started by the August lightning storms continue to burn. With no cooling events, winds to blow the smoke away, or large rain events on the horizon, smoky conditions are expected to stick around for a while.
The smoke is carrying with it tiny, hazardous liquid and solid particles that, when inhaled, can cause serious respiratory and heart problems. If exposed to these dangerous particulates for 24 hours, people may start experiencing adverse health effects.
In order to stay safe, and decrease risk of illness caused by smoke, the EPA encourages people who can to stay indoors as much as possible.
The tiny hazardous particles, or “particulate matter 2.5” — fine solid particles and liquid droplets in the air that when inhaled, can move deep into the lungs, and sometimes blood stream, causing serious health problems. In Mendocino County, PM2.5 levels are elevated in Willits, Redwood Valley, and Ukiah, among many other places.
Smoke from the powerful blazes around California, including the August Complex, a collection of fires in Mendocino National Forest and the LNU lightning complex, a collection of fires in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, is blowing it across California.
“If the smoke concentrations are getting to a point where you can’t see very far, that means the air quality has gone down. So that’s kind of your indication that it’s time to stay inside and not be going outside and recreating or something like that because the air quality has gotten bad.”
(We can't see far at all.)
According to the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, PM2.5 exposure can irritate asthma, lead to irregular heartbeats, nonfatal heart attacks, premature death in people with heart or lung disease, respiratory irritation including coughing and difficulty breathing, and generally reduced lung function. This is, of course, especially worrisome as COVID, a respiratory illness, continues to spike in California and Mendocino.
Mild atmospheric conditions are adding to the problem. Without wind to blow the smoke away from areas near the fires, it is settling and accumulating in river valleys. Aylward explained that each afternoon, when the air is warmer, the fires get more active, producing more smoke. Then, at night, the smoke sinks into nearby river valleys. “The longer that happens the more smoke concentration gets stuck in valley floors,” said Aylward. “If it’s not windy and there’s a fire nearby, that smoke isn’t going anywhere, it’s just going to sit there and keep collecting.” As the concentration of smoke increases, air quality will decrease.
The EPA, in their Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Officials, encourages people experiencing a smoke episode to stay indoors, reduce physical activity, store food to avoid going outside, and turn on their air conditioning to filter air.
They also advise that people wear the now well known N95 masks, face masks which capture about 95% of particles passing through it.
(Can anyone even get the actual N95's anymore??? The best that I can do are KN95. Please let me know if you see the former for sale.)
PM2.5 has negative environmental impacts as well. It can change the PH balance of lakes and streams, alter the nutrients in coastal waters and rivers, deplete soil nutrients, damage forests, crops, and ecosystems, and compound the effects of acid rain.
Aylward doesn’t expect the smoke that’s causing air quality to diminish to dissipate any time soon. He believes as long as the fires are burning, and there is no major rain, wind, or cooling event to help put the fires out, the smoke will probably stick around. “Right now the trends and forecasts over the next couple of weeks don’t show any big cool down.”
Aylward says it really comes down to what the fires do, that while the fires are still raging, the poor, dangerous air quality will be present. The August Complex, in Mendocino National Forest, is 181,051 acres and 11% contained (as of 11:00AM *** august 25), the LNU lightning complex in Napa and Sonoma is 392, 513 acres and 27% contained (as of 2:38 PM).
“The big question is what does the fire do? Are they able to put it out? Where is it located? Is it in really steep terrain? Aylward explained that as the August Complex is in steep terrain that increases the challenges of fighting a fire, he wouldn’t be surprised if the fire was around for quite a bit of time. “It’s very possible that we could have the smoke drifting into the valleys every night as long as that fire is still active. Or, there are other fires in the south, so depending on which way the wind is drifting that day, those fires could impact southern Mendocino as well,” said Aylward. “It’s not a good combination to basically have three large fires all around you.”
*** updated from previous article:
The August Complex, a collection of fires burning in and around the Mendocino National Forest, being handled mostly by the U.S. Forest Service, is currently 200,465 acres, or around 300 square miles, and 17% contained. The complex, which was originally 37 separate fires ignited during the mid-august lightning storm, is continuing to burn west, but slowly.
A total of 476 personnel are working to contain the remainder of the fires’ perimeter. However, resources are low, stretched between the many fires burning across the state. Progress is slow moving, and the August Complex, which is burning in mountainous terrain, is a challenging one to fight.
For now, most resources are being used to work the west side of the complex. Walker said the Forest Service would like to focus on the hot spots as well, but they just don’t have enough resources. There are 476 personnel, eight crews, including some inmate hand crews, five dozers, 19 water tenders and three helicopters at the scene.
“For the size of this fire, 476 people is not a lot,” said Walker.
To add to the challenges, the August Complex is burning in challenging mountainous terrain. The topography increases the complexity of fighting the fire. Walker explained that fire behaves differently in shoots, valleys, canyons, the east and west sides of slopes, and that the wind direction further complicates things. There are also snakes to watch out for and trees to cut down. Basically, there are a lot of factors at play. “The firefighters are working their tails off,” said Walker.
Personnel are working 16 hour days, clocking in around 6 a.m. and finishing up for the day around 10 or 11 p.m. “We only have a day shift, no night shift because we don’t have enough people,” she said.
Firefighters are allowed to work 14 days straight before they are required to take off for two days. As far as Walker knows, no one on the fire has had to time out yet.
According to InciWeb, an incident information system run by the US Forest Service, the August Complex consists of three major fires, the Doe fire, which is 162,326 acres and 31% contained, the Glade Fire, which is 19,684 acres and 0% contained, and the Tatham Fire, which is 8,958 acres and 11% contained. Forest Service firefighters are also working with Cal Fire on the eastern side of the Tatham fire.
Temperatures dropped from the mid 100s to the mid 90s at lower elevations and to the 80s at high elevations, making the fire easier to fight. Light winds have helped keep the fire from running. Walker said, based on daily briefings with a National Forest Service meteorologist, that conditions do not likely to change any time in the near future. For now, it seems the Forest Service is managing to slowly contain the perimeter of the complex and gain on the fire.
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