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Fires ravaging in northern California worsen Kern's air quality

Light brown air seeped into the San Joaquin Valley and Bakersfield over the weekend, prompting the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to issue a health caution Friday that warned respiratory issues could be triggered for qualifying individuals.

“The health caution will remain in place until the fires are extinguished, or until smoke is no longer affecting the Valley,” said the SJVAPCD in a news release.

Bakersfield is no stranger to bad air quality days. The American Lung Association, in its State of the Air 2021 report, ranked Bakersfield number two on the list of cities most polluted by ozone and number one on the list of cities plagued yearly by particulate matter.

However, conditions sparked by the multiple conflagrations ravaging through Northern California add onto the already horrible air quality in the San Joaquin Valley.

The pollution stifling Bakersfield is a combination of ozone and particulate matter from the Dixie Fire, which has burned almost 500,000 acres and is 21 percent contained, along with the River Fire, Lava Fire, Antelope Fire and many more, according to SJVAPCD.

Particulate matter consists of smoke and dust particles smaller than the diameter of one strand of human hair. These toxins can deeply penetrate the lungs and cause harm, said the district in an informational document.

On Friday, the average particulate matter hovered around 20 particulate matter (PM) micrograms per cubic meter, according to the SJVAPCD website. Particulate matter is one aspect used to calculate the Air Quality Index; the AQI measures pollution in the air and categorizes the air through five levels; a level one designation recommends outdoor activity for all and level five recommends all should avoid any outdoor activity.

The particulate matter levels Friday ranked around level two, which warns sensitive individuals to reduce prolonged outdoor activity. However, around noon, the particulate matter exponentially increased to 109 PM, qualifying to be above level five. Around 2 p.m., particulate matter decreased to 14 PM, according to the SJV Air District’s website.

Particulate matter Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight reached almost 120 PM, according to the SJVAPCD website. Throughout Sunday, the particulates hovered between levels three and five, only dropping to level two around 11 p.m. Sunday. On Monday, PM reached level three around 8 a.m. and then wavered between levels three and two throughout the day, according to the SJVAPCD website.

Treacherously, particulate matter has “no rhyme or reason” and spikes according to weather patterns, said Heather Heinks, the outreach and communications manager at the district.

Shifts in weather prompted the SJVAPCD to issue the health caution, Heinks said. Smoke billowed across the valley and eventually began to drop into lower elevations Saturday and Sunday. When the air cools at night, hot smoke sinks to the ground and creates the hazy conditions, Heinks added.

San Joaquin Valley’s bowl-like shape holds the smoke, making it harder to dissipate, Heinks said. Only through rain or wind will the deadly pollution loosen its grip on this region, she added.

The real danger comes from the particulate matter being breathed into the lungs, Heinks said.

Dr. Paula Ardron, specializing in allergy and immunology at Kaiser Permanente, said airways in the lungs act as a filter to trap debris. Individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease already have inflammation. Breathing in pollution can further block inhalation and trigger coughing, wheezing and chest tightness, Ardron added.

“​​They’re much more sensitive,” Ardron said. “Even moderate amounts of air pollution due to smoke or smog can set them off and cause them to have coughing.”

Ardron said she has seen an uptick in patients arriving to ameliorate respiratory problems.

SJVAPCD recommends staying inside and changing the air filters in air conditioners to ensure particulates remain outside the residence. Using an air purifier can also remove toxic materials from the atmosphere. Wearing an N95 mask, not a cloth mask, can also provide relief to those suffering from respiratory ailments.