Calif. wildfires pollute skies, threaten health

Calif. wildfirespollute skies, threaten health

28 June 2008

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USA — Hundreds of lightning-caused wildfires have turnedCalifornia skies into an unhealthy stew of smoke and ash, forcing thecancellation of athletic events and other outdoor activities across the state.

Air quality districts from Bakersfield to Redding have issued healthadvisories through the weekend, urging residents to stay indoors to limit theirexposure to the smoky air.

Air pollution readings in Northern California are two to 10 times the federalstandard for clean air, said Dimitri Stanich, spokesman for the California AirResources Board. Some areas experienced the worst air quality on record, withthe smoke hanging like a fog down to ground level.

“When you have it on the scale we are seeing now, it is very dangerousto the general public health,” Stanich said. “This is a very seriousproblem.”

Changing weather brought smoke-clearing breeze and brief relief to some areasSaturday, but it could also bring lightning storms similar to the ones thatignited fires across Northern California a week ago.

Thunderstorms could strike anywhere in the northern Sierra Nevada mountainsor the northern Central Valley on Saturday night, but they aren’t expected tobring much rain, said National Weather Service forecaster Johnnie Powell inSacramento. The front was expected to pass by Sunday, setting up a second weekof abysmal air quality.

The renewed threat of dry lightning and stiffer breezes that could stir thewildfires prompted fire officials to declare a”red flag warning”—meaning the most extreme fire danger—until 5a.m. Monday for Northern California.

On Saturday, President Bush issued an emergency declaration for Californiaand ordered federal agencies to assist in firefighting efforts in Butte,Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, and Trinity. Gov. ArnoldSchwarzenegger had made the request on Friday, saying that wildfires had burnedmore than 400 square miles.

But California officials said the federal declaration doesn’t go far enough.State and local governments also need federal financing to cover their “extraordinarycosts in fighting these fires and helping the thousands of Californians who havesuffered unimaginable loss and damages,” said Henry Renteria, director ofthe state Office of Emergency Services.

Federal aid now includes four Marine Corps helicopters, remote sensing of thefires by NASA, federal firefighters, and the activation of the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency.

“At this point what we’re providing are the immediate resources neededto save lives,” FEMA regional director Bob Fenton said in a conference callwith reporters. “If there’s additional requirements above and beyond thatI’m sure the state will be bringing that to our attention.”

More than 17,000 firefighters, nearly 1,500 fire engines and bulldozers, andmore than 80 helicopters and aircraft were fighting more than 1,000 active firesSaturday, said state emergency services spokesman Kelly Huston.

“The summer has just begun, and fire conditions will only get tougher,”Ruben Grijalva, director of the California Department of Forestry and FireProtection, warned in a weekly radio address on behalf of the governor.

The fires have destroyed 47 structures and injured 85 people, and theycontinue to threaten nearly 10,000 homes, businesses and outbuildings, accordingto his department.

Areas hardest hit include Butte County, where 31 fires have burned 19 squaremiles and threatened 1,200 homes; Mendocino County, where 121 fires have burned45 square miles and threatened 900 homes; and Shasta-Trinity counties, whereabout 160 fires have burned 58 square miles and threatened 230 homes.

A wildfire in the Big Sur region of the Los Padres National Forest has burned42 square miles and destroyed 16 homes. The blaze, which was only 3 percentcontained, has forced the closure of a 12-mile stretch of coastal Highway 1 anddriven away visitors at the peak of the tourist season.

Further south in the Los Padres forest, a separate wildfire that startedthree weeks ago has scorched 92 square miles of remote wilderness. It was 80percent contained Saturday.  

Air quality regulators are especially concerned about high readings ofsmall-particle pollution. The tiniest particles can penetrate past the body’simmune defenses, traveling deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream.

Children, the elderly and people with heart and lung problems areparticularly vulnerable, but pollution levels are high enough to affect healthyadults.

Health officials have reported an increase in people complaining of eye andthroat irritation and coughing. The poor air can also trigger asthma attacks andbronchitis.

Some veterinary offices said pet owners were bringing in dogs and cats withsymptoms ranging from weepy eyes and irritated skin to difficulty breathing orunusual lethargy. Vets were advising that pets remain inside until the smokeclears.

Smoky air canceled this weekend’s 100-mile Western States Endurance Run forthe first time in its 31-year history. The decision disappointed 370 runners whohad traveled from as far away as Africa for the annual ultramarathon from SquawValley at Lake Tahoe to Auburn in the Sierra foothills.

In Sonoma County, the limited visibility kept the Energizer Bunny and dozensof other colorful hot air balloons from lifting off during Saturday’s Hot AirBalloon Classic in Windsor.

Cities also closed public pools, canceled softball games and called offIndependence Day aerial fireworks displays.

Schwarzenegger urged residents not to buy fireworks this year and said localgovernments should consider an outright ban, though he would not impose onestatewide.

Some air quality officials advised residents to avoid painting projects,vacuuming, grilling with charcoal or lighting candles.

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