Heat, fires, stagnant air—the Perfect storm for Valley’s bad air

By Carol Lawson-Swezey, Reporter

Nobody has to tell us that our Valley air is bad. We can let our eyes and nose be the judge. In recent days, ash from surrounding wildfires has fallen steadily, like a post-Apocalyptic snow, coating our cars and everything else in grainy soot.

“It’s a combination of poor air circulation, due to the high pressure system that has built over the West Coast, cutting the Valley off from our natural air conditioner from the coast. Combined with the local fires and heat, it’s the perfect storm for extremely poor air quality,” said Dr. A. M. Aminian of the Allergy Institute in Fresno.

Recent fires, including the nearby Rough Fire, which has now become Fresno County’s largest wildfire on record and which has torched more than 140,000 acres (at press time), have exacerbated the air problem. Although some light rain last week has dissipated some of the problems, residents still have to take care.

Dr. Aminian’s practice has seen a noticeable increase in patients suffering from severe asthma, allergies and respiratory problems. He recommends for patients to stay hydrated, keep indoors as much as possible, run the car air conditioner on recycled air, keep a rescue inhaler on hand, shower before bed and lastly, to rinse their nose out with water, to cleanse their airways of all dirt. For those with respiratory problems who cannot avoid being outside during unhealthy air days, he recommends wearing a mask.

Even inside, since our homes are not air tight, Dr. Aminian recommends changing the AC filter regularly. Symptoms related to poor air quality include continuous coughing, wheezing, tiredness, runny nose, headaches and the inability to breathe. For a combination of difficulty breathing with sweating and a rapid heartbeat, Dr. Aminian advises patients to call their doctor and go to the emergency room.

Recent reports have shown a 30 percent increase in children seeking care at Valley Childrens Hospital for respiratory related problems. At Clovis Unified, school nurses noticed an increase of students coming into their offices complaining of headaches and allergies, said Kelly Avants, the District’s Chief Communication Officer.

Schools are doing what they can to ensure student safety. At the Clovis District, recent outdoor practices and games for elementary schools have been cancelled and secondary school events have been modified or curtailed dependent on the air quality readings.

“Our coaches and principals are very experienced at adjusting activities due to air quality and other weather conditions,” Avants said. “Scaled back practices can take the form of reviewing playbooks and walking through plays; and an example of activities being adjusted would be moving a jog-a-thon into the multipurpose room instead of the playfields.”

The District recently cancelled the September 12 all-day Football Carnival because of poor air quality. During the carnival, each District elementary school participates in four practice games of competition. Once before, within the last decade, the carnival has been cancelled due to air quality issues, Avants said.

“Because the Real Time Air Advisory Network (RAAN) is looking at prolonged exposure levels, we adjust based on two consecutive readings in a given range,” Avants said. “During the past few weeks, because the air quality is changing based on the way the smoke is shifting around the Valley, we have stayed particularly attuned to this real-time data.”

School districts use readings from RAAN, provided by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Valley Air District), to receive hourly updates on the day’s air quality ranges. The readings are based on a color coded air quality scale of good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups (like children, elderly, those with existing respiratory issues), unhealthy, and very unhealthy, said Heather Heinks, outreach and communications manager for the Valley Air District.

Ironically, prior to the recent explosion of wildfires, the Valley was on the verge of completing a record-setting clean air summer season for ozone readings. For the period of May to July 2015, there was a record low for the number of days exceeding the 1997 and 2008 8-hour zone standards for ozone emissions. Heinks said this was due to lower than average temperatures, some unexpected cleansing rains and a combination of the Valley Air District’s planning and incentive efforts and community participation.

“The combination of being in the highest ozone season and the air alert for the fires, which produce particulate matter which are precursors to more ozone creation, now brings us dangerously close to exceeding the federal limits set for us,” Heinks said. “We call on the public to change their behavior, and find ways to do less driving like not using drive-thrus, linking their trips, and carpooling. We are asking businesses to have employees collaborate on ordering in meals, practice flexible scheduling, and even consider telecommuting, at least for a few days until we reach our critical standards.”

The most intensive time period for ozone emissions is between 2 and 6 p.m., Heinks said, so residents are encouraged to shift their activities, like lawn maintenance and running errands, to early morning or evening times.

“It’s not that this area is dirtier than other cities like Los Angeles or the Bay Area,” Heinks said. “But the Valley has natural bad air conditions from being in a bowl, surrounded by mountains which doesn’t allow pollution to be dispersed. For their health during these bad air days, we encourage people to drink liquids to flush toxins and come indoors. Removing yourself from the exposure can help tremendously. The County Public Health Officer said to actually go elsewhere if possible.”