As the Camp Fire in northern California claims its place as the most destructive blaze in the state’s history, the heavy smoke billowing in from the fire has created a ghost town in its own right, casting an eerie glow over a region typically celebrated for its clear air quality.
Experts warned residents Monday that as the Camp Fire rages on, the smoke is expected to continue its onslaught through the end of the week, making it difficult to breathe and unhealthy to remain outdoors for long periods of time.
A ferry boat makes its way through the haze toward Alcatraz Island. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP
“What we’re telling people is the best thing you can do is to be indoors,” said Walter Wallace, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Many have heeded this advice since the smoke began making its way into the area early Friday, adding to the apocalyptic feel brought on by the haze. Playgrounds and parks usually bustling with activity were left abandoned under sunlight filtered through a smog that tinged the light in odd sepia tones. Some of those who did wander outside walked around with air masks on their faces, like extras in a horror film about a deadly virus.
“It’s Veteran’s Day!” Brian Altwarg exclaimed on Monday. “People should be out of school, off of work, having fun, enjoying the weather.”
Altwarg, the general manager of Markus Supply Hardware in Oakland, had spent the weekend dealing with a sudden high demand for face masks at his store. “We sold everything we had on Saturday,” he said.
One team purchasing the masks in bulk was Mask Oakland, an impromptu group of volunteers that had come together to pass out N95-particle grade masks to the homeless in the East Bay. With public health experts warning people to stay indoors, J Redwoods, one of the founders of the group, said more needed to be concerned about those who don’t have that option.
“It’s a pretty simple need,” Redwoods said. “People need to breathe. Let’s help people breathe.”
In San Francisco, the city’s homeless outreach team was conducting wellness visits at homeless sites, offering water, masks, and transports to shelters and other locations with filtered air, said Linda Acosta, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health. On Friday, the main branch of the public library remained open later “for those members of the public seeking respite from the outside.”
Acosta said the public hospital received “slightly elevated respiratory visits” over the weekend, but nothing too significant. She believes that the Tubbs Fire that ripped through wine country last fall and blew a similar haze of smoke over the Bay Area had prepared residents for the smokey conditions of the Camp Fire.
“I think, unfortunately, with these sort of incidents, we’re getting the hang of it,” Acosta said. “San Francisco, we have been so lucky to have such clean air. Initially it was such a shocker, but now we are learning to deal with what a lot of people have had to deal with for a long time.”
Wallace explained that the reason the air is so awful is because the smoke from the fire had created an inversion layer over the Bay Area that was essentially a lid that “keeps all of the air down near ground level.”
“Rather than the smoke being aloft, high in the air not affecting us and being really more of a visual effect, it’s trapped on ground level,” he said. “We can smell the smoke and it’s affecting us in that we are breathing in this negative particulate matter.”
And unfortunately, especially as the Camp Fire continues to rage, it may be a while before the region sees any respite.
“We’re not seeing any type of rain in the near future, and we’re seeing that the winds will be light,” Wallace said. “We’re not going to see any fresh air that will take any of the bad air out.”
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