Gathering gloom envelops Chico

For the last week the sky above Chico has looked more like the soupy mess that hangs over Los Angeles than our normally more-azure atmosphere. Blame it on the Biscuit Fire burning up Southern Oregon and depositing its clouds of particles on us.

“Particulates are the [pollutants] that get lodged deep in your lungs,” explained Gail Williams, the Butte County air pollution control manager.

These fine particles are smaller than 10 micrometers—a human hair is around 70 micrometers—which makes them very mobile. The fire has scorched more than 470,000 acres of forest and caused $84 million in damage. The U.S. Department of Forestry has no estimated date of containment.

In the meantime, the Oregon fire continues to billow clouds of particles that travel across the border and meet north-bound winds, which cool the floating pollutants, causing them to fall into the air layers we breathe in Northern California.

Sacramento and the Bay Area, with higher concentrations of particle and emission sources—mostly from auto tailpipes—are also contributing to the poor air quality in Butte County, as pollutants hitch rides on the same winds that carry and cool the smoke from Oregon.

Dr. Gary Incaudo, a Chico allergist, says asthmatics and allergy sufferers will have a tough season to endure, as ozone and particulates work “synergistically.” He says that a person exposed to ozone would need a drastically smaller dose of allergens to induce a physiological reaction. In short, respiratory specialists have a busy time ahead of them.

“They’re coming in, in droves,” said Dr. Gerard Valcarenghi, a resident physician at North State Pulmonary Associates. He said he thinks there is a “direct correlation” between the air quality and his high patient loads.

"I’ve even noticed that patients with standard appointments are asking for more inhalers," Valcarenghi said. "They’re using more of their rescue inhalers."