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Natural disasters

California fires make San Francisco air as bad as Beijing, leaving face masks in short supply

Face masks in short supply in the San Francisco area due to the fires

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 11:53am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 8:20pm

Smoke from the wildfires north of San Francisco have plunged air quality levels to the same unhealthy level as China’s notoriously polluted capital Beijing, sending people to emergency rooms and forcing schools to close and people to wear masks when they step outside.

The region has endured days of choking smoke since the fires began Sunday night and claimed at least 31 lives and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. The smoke cast a dull haze over San Francisco’s scenic skyline, and poor visibility has led to numerous flight delays and cancellations at the city’s airport.

Air quality in most of the region Thursday and Friday was as bad as smog-choked Beijing, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

“We have unprecedented levels of smoke and particles in the air that we normally don’t see,” said Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the district.

The air quality index for San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the area around the fires was predicted to hit 158, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly five times what’s considered safe.

That’s the same kinds of levels found in Beijing, which on Friday was measured at between 158 and 165 by the US embassy there.

“The federal (safe) standard is 35,” said John Balmes, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and expert on environmental health.

Since Wednesday, about 15 per cent of flights in and out of San Francisco International Airport experienced delays because air traffic controllers have had to separate aircraft at a greater distance, airport spokesman Doug Yakel said Friday.

Officials warned that very fine smoke particles, thinner than a human hair, can get lodged in the lungs and into the bloodstream, causing irreparable damage to the body.

In Solano County, hospitals there received more than 250 people who complained of toxic air inhalation, county health officer Bela Matyas said Thursday.

At an Ace Hardware store in San Francisco’s financial district, phones were ringing non-stop with customers looking to buy breathing masks. But they were sold out, as were most stores in the area.

At a Home Depot in Fairfield, California, where a fire was burning north of town and some areas were under evacuation watch, a steady stream of customers came in looking for masks. But the shelf was bare.

One man asked a Home Depot staffer if there were any left and when he was told no, asked if he could buy the one hanging around the staffer’s neck.

“You’re not the first guy who’s offered that,” said the staffer, who declined both to sell the mask and to give his name.

At an Orchard Supply Hardware in Berkeley, California, a woman answered the phone: “Good morning Orchard Supply, we are sold out of all masks, how may I help you?” The store was working on getting an emergency truckload of masks.

Johnston Medical, also in Berkeley, was one of the few stores that still had some of the masks recommended by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on hand.

Store assistants scrambled to help shoppers find masks in picked-over boxes. After hanging up from yet another call, one clerk turned to the other: “Guess what they wanted?”

The empty shelves are only very local, unlike other times, said Balmes. During the global SARS outbreak in 2012 there was a global shortage.

“The Chinese were buying them all up,” said Balmes.

With winds expected to keep blowing in smoke from the fires to populated areas this weekend, many schools decided to close Friday. Organisers cancelled weekend events, including an Oktoberfest in Walnut Creek and a fitness festival and half marathon in San Francisco.

Sports teams are monitoring the air quality as they prepare to host games.

The Oakland Raiders are still planning to host the Los Angeles Chargers in Oakland on Sunday, but the team said it will keep monitoring and will update fans if there are changes. The NFL had considered moving the game if it becomes necessary.

Officials at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University planned to proceed with games Friday and Saturday, respectively. Stanford encouraged fans to bring donations for victims of the fires to the game.

Tribune News Service and Associated Press