Nine-year old Xyza Junior Reporter Catcher A. wanted to share his experience with the Camp Fire and how the smoke affected him, his family, and the rest of his community. Here’s his recount of the devastating fire and the tough decisions that had to be made to keep everyone safe. Thanks for sharing, Catcher!
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Junior Reporter: The Bad Air In The West
By: Catcher A.
The air in Northern California reached hazardous levels due to the California wildfires across the state. Schools were canceled, public places like museums and community centers were closed, and people were trying to stay inside or leave the area. Also, people were lining up to buy masks and stores were running out of them. Even Amazon was running out. The smoke even traveled to Chicago due to the jet stream, which is a river of air high up in the atmosphere.
It was very unpleasant to live here in San Francisco during the fires, and with schools closed, many people left early for Thanksgiving break to get out of the bad air. You felt like you were surrounded by a haze, and sometimes it hurt your throat. Even though it was hundreds of miles away, it was very bad. The air quality levels were in the red and purple zones, which means it was very dangerous, like smoking a dozen cigarettes a day.
Nicole Leonard, vice principal of Hilldale Elementary and Middle School in Daly City, California, helped in the decision to close the school the Friday before Thanksgiving break because of the air quality. On Thursday, the school got 200 N95 ventilator masks to give to all the kids and employees. Leonard said that the administrators know how hard it is for working parents when school is canceled, so they didn’t make the decision lightly. But on Thursday, it was clear that they had to cancel school for Friday. “When it got so terrible, it felt like we had to make a decision to close Friday at least. Every day it seemed to be getting worse. We don’t have filtered air in our school and the kids do have to go outside between classes. It is harder for us to keep the kids safe at school,” Leonard said. She said she was skeptical at first of the danger as the smoke from the fires in Northern California moved into the Bay Area and she saw people wearing face masks. “First I thought it was kind of silly. I thought, what are those people doing? And then when I couldn’t breathe, I thought, I’m the one being an idiot, I have to wear a mask. I also had to wear it to show the kids how important it is. When I could feel it in my lungs, I thought wow, I really made a mistake not wearing one before.”
Linda Acosta, public information officer for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said the Health Department was working with all of the city departments, including police, fire, schools, public utilities, and parks and recreation, to determine how to help people in the city cope with the bad air quality. She was monitoring the air quality and weather for two weeks to keep city officials and the public informed about the levels and how to respond. She said the air quality was so bad in the Bay Area because of the unique air pattern of northeast winds delivering the smoke into the Bay. “The Bay is a natural bowl and we had a high pressure system pushing that smoke into the ground. There are only two small holes for it to get out, the Golden Gate Bridge and Point Reyes. It was pooling down in the Bay. There is an offshore wind keeping it here. It is almost like a cat batting something around. It is coming down and the offshore wind is keeping it there. It is going back and forth and can’t get out.”
Once levels hit the yellow level, they sent out an alert warning people with asthma or other breathing problems to limit their time outside. When it hit the red level, the city sent an alert telling people they should stay inside. They sent out alerts through phones and to 225,000 people on the Next Door site.
“The best thing you can do is stay indoors and if a mask feels better, you can wear a mask. But wearing a mask and running outside isn’t good. The thing you have to worry about is the exposure to the particles, so if you can be inside, that is the best.”
They were especially concerned about people who were living on the streets. “We do a lot of education and we have teams of people who go out to transport people inside where they can get clean air, like libraries or shelters. Or if they want to stay outside, we give masks and train partners to check on them.”
Acosta said the San Francisco Animal Care and Control even encouraged people to keep their pets inside if possible. “It does affect them. Limit your walks. It really affects birds and smashed face dogs,” Acosta said. “All the birds were on the ground and they weren’t singing. They really know what is going on.” She said experts predict that the air quality wouldn’t get better until they got the fire 75 percent contained. “The hope is that the rain that is coming will bring some moisture but will also change the weather pattern,” Acosta said.