With heavy smoke blanketing Siskiyou County from the Hendricks fire to the north and the Carr fire to the south, many people are wondering just how bad the air is to breath. According to health officials, the news is not good.
In addition to toxins like carbon monoxide, cyanide and harmful byproducts from homes burning such as plastic and other building materials, it is the microscopic nature of the particles in the smoke itself that are the biggest threat.
And those dust masks at the hardware store do little good as they are designed for construction work involving things like drywall and sawdust. They are not useful for particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, or about 1/20th the thickness of a human hair.
Those particles are too small to be properly filtered by the human respiratory system and can penetrate deep into the lungs. Some toxins can even end up in the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular problems.
Those especially at risk are children (because their lungs are not fully developed), pregnant women, the elderly and people with existing respiratory problems. Airways can become swollen and irritated, which in turn can prevent oxygen from being properly circulated throughout the body.
“People with existing lung disease, people with asthma, people with chronic bronchitis and emphysema, this kind of exposure will make their lungs worse,” said Dr. Norman H. Edelman with the American Lung Association. “And if your lungs get worse they don’t fully repair themselves.”
Edelman said the best way for people to protect themselves is to use a N95 respirator, which can help filter out some of the more harmful particulates.
By any standard the smoke in Siskiyou County is nearly unprecedented.
Eric Olson with the Siskiyou County Air Pollution Control District said the current air quality index for Mt. Shasta stands at 195, which is considered unhealthy and borders on very unhealthy.
He said the last time he can recall the air in Siskiyou County being this dangerous was in 2008 when then California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared several counties disaster areas – not from fire but from smoke.
“The fires are big and they are not going out anytime soon,” Olson said. “None of the fires in our region that are big smoke producers are even close to containment.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, common symptoms from wildfire smoke include burning eyes, coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headache and shortness of breath. The good news is the symptoms are often temporary and there are things that can be done to minimize the effects.
Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. While driving use the air conditioner and the recirculate function rather than drawing in air from the outside. Stay indoors and close all doors and windows. Use an air conditioner if you have one and also check the filter. Maybe a good idea to postpone the mega pedal from the town of Mt. Shasta to Bunny Flat.
“There are also psychological factors,” said Jeanne Yalon-Owens, medical director for the Shasta Cascade Health Centers.
“There is something especially here with being able to see the mountain and the expansive sky above us,” she said. “When we can’t see that we see an increase in anxiety and depression.”
Yalon-Owens said she is also concerned about the long-term effects of smoke inhalation. Respiratory symptoms can carry over into fall and winter.
“It’s not just about being able to breath today,” she said. “It is also about being able to breath this winter.”
Smoky summers in Siskiyou County may not be going away anytime soon. Seven of the 12 most destructive wildfires in California history have occurred since 2015, including the Carr fire, which has claimed six lives and charred more than 100,000 acres. The fire is so hot that it is creating its own weather in Redding.
Relief is not expected in the immediate future.
“A dangerous heat wave will continue from California to the Pacific Northwest,” the National Weather Service posted on its website. “Triple digit heat combined with dry humidity will only exacerbate the ongoing wildfire situation in California.”