Ash From Above
Wildfires miraculously spare the air we breathe.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
With roughly a dozen fires torching the Central Coast in the past two weeks, local medical workers have braced for a spike in respiratory complaints. But despite the spread of haze across the sky, the public health radar has barely blipped.
An eerie layer of brownish-gray smoke hung over Salinas June 13, prompting cars to turn on their headlights at 5pm. That apocalyptic vision, and the layer of ash that coated local cars and porches that weekend, might suggest that smoke from the Indians fire in the Ventana Wilderness touched down on Monterey County’s urban core.
Ed Kendig, compliance division manager for Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, says other than some ground-level impacts in Big Sur and in south county, the Indians plume has remained aloft. But at press time, the Complex fires in Big Sur were darkening the rosy picture.
District inspectors who monitored throughout the county for fine particulate matter– a smoke ingredient that can enter the deep lung and aggravate breathing– found ground levels within state safety standards through June 22, Kendig reports. The Martin Fire in Santa Cruz and other fires from Stockton to Redding likewise stayed out of the county’s public airshed.
“Our record of instrumented measurements is entirely unremarkable and unnewsworthy. And for that we’re very lucky,” he wrote in a June 20 e-mail. “So far, we’ve dodged a big bullet.”
The luck surprised hospital workers, too. Representatives for Natividad Medical Center, Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Watsonville Community Hospital and King City’s George L. Mee Memorial Hospital all reported that there had been no increase in fire- or smoke-related admittances as of June 23.
The Indians Fire– whose plume had been heading straight south and offshore– worried air district staff when it took a 90-degree turn June 19, drifting toward the Salinas Valley. But it later returned to its southeasterly path, sparing the urban center, Kendig says.
A spot fire the same day burned directly upwind of the air district office near the junction of Highway 68 and Highway 1, forcing staff to evacuate. That fire only burned one to two acres and was quickly extinguished. Another small fire blazed off Highway 1 near the Pebble Beach gate June 20, licking though one acre before fire crews contained it.
A record-breaking dry spring jump-started this year’s fire season. Lightning struck across Northern California June 20 and 21, igniting nearly 400 fires from Monterey and Fresno counties to the Oregon border.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the California National Guard to help battle the blazes June 21. That same weekend, three fires forced the evacuation of about 75 Big Sur residences and businesses. By June 23 only two of the nine major Central Coast fires had been 100 percent contained, the still-blazing Indians fire had burned through nearly 60,000 acres west of King City, and the Big Sur fires threatened homes and hillsides.
Although fallout has settled on the ground throughout the county, the ash is innocuous as long as it’s from burned vegetation rather than structures, Kendig says. “It doesn’t really involve a health risk.”
The air district has been issuing public smoke advisories since June 11. And while satellite imagery showed the plumes remaining aloft through nearly two weeks of the Indians fire, the fog that rolled in June 23 obscured the digital picture.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t know what the situation is down in the southern Salinas Valley,” Kendig said June 23. “Trying to predict where the smoke impacts will be is becoming an overwhelmingly ridiculous effort.
“In the end, our main message has to be, watch out for the smoke. It could be occurring anywhere at anytime. If you can smell it, your exposure is enough that it’s worth it to protect yourself by leaving the area or going indoors.”
Closing windows and setting ventilation systems to recirculate indoor air are smart precautions during fire season, he adds. “Your home may be your last refuge of clean air.”