Orange alert!

Air quality in Chico took a nosedive this winter despite a new city ordinance

Left to right: Butte County Air Quality Management District’s Jim Wagoner, Armen Kamian and Jason Mandly in front of a Butte County air-quality map, at the district’s office in Chico.

Left to right: Butte County Air Quality Management District’s Jim Wagoner, Armen Kamian and Jason Mandly in front of a Butte County air-quality map, at the district’s office in Chico.

Photo by Claire Hutkins Seda

Find out more: Information on the Check Before You Light program and the air-quality forecast for Chico (click on Air Quality, then Today’s Conditions). The Environmental Protection Agency covers basic information including health impacts of PM 2.5.

“You’d think being up here, away from the big cities, it shouldn’t be an issue,” said Monique Bird on a recent Sunday. She and Roylene Mahic were talking about Chico’s air quality, while sitting together not far from the head of the mosaic dragon in Lower Bidwell Park’s Caper Acres playground. Their sons, both 7, briefly checked in before darting off again at full speed to another part of the packed play area.

“People have it worse elsewhere, for sure, but I think because we think it’s a small town, we assume the air is good,” Mahic said.

The two mothers were disheartened to hear that the day’s air quality was forecast to be poor, but they didn’t restrict the length of their sons’ outdoor play.

“I’m not concerned about it,” offered another parent, Mary Roll, as she watched her daughter run laps around Caper Acres’ play structures.

That might have been a mistake, said Jason Mandly, air-quality compliance specialist at the Butte County Air Quality Management District (BCAQMD). The day was forecast to be unhealthful for sensitive groups—an “orange alert” according to the agency’s color-coded system defining air quality.

Notably, Chico has had a record-shattering 25 orange-alert days this winter, up from just eight last winter. The air-quality index’s color-coding moves from green, or good air quality; to yellow, which is moderate; to orange; and to red, which is just plain unhealthful, and beyond. During an orange alert, those with lung or heart disease, as well as the elderly and children, should avoid strenuous outside activities because “they will be affected, especially if they are exposed over a long period of time,” explained Mandly.

Then again, being outdoors might not have been a mistake. The forecasts are based on “a 24-hour average,” Mandly said, explaining that “the air quality could be pristine in the afternoon, and then when the inversion happens”—when a cool pocket of air keeps pollutants low to the ground, which often occurs in the evening, right when people start burning in their fireplaces—air quality can “deteriorate at night.”

His suggestion? Check the BCAQMD’s regularly updated website for current conditions. “You can take a look at the [air-quality] data this particular hour,” if you want to make sure your children aren’t, say, playing soccer in bad air. And, if you can smell the smoke at all, “that would be a good time to reduce prolonged exposure and heavy exertion.”

An orange alert also automatically generates a Check Before You Light day—another program operated by BCAQMD to request that residents restrict the use of wood stoves and fireplaces to prevent air quality from worsening. Roll had heard about the Check Before You Light advisory issued by BCAQMD through the Chico Enterprise-Record’s Twitter feed, but didn’t know exactly what that meant in terms of air quality. And she seemed fairly unfazed.

“I’m used to it, I guess, so it doesn’t bother me. I’m used to the agricultural burning, the dust,” she said, as she shook her head.

The E-R, like other media outlets, health agencies and schools, receives an advisory notice from BCAQMD when the district declares a Check Before You Light day, which is any day when air quality is forecast to be orange or red. For county residents, the program is voluntary. A new Chico city ordinance, however, makes the days into mandatory no-burn days for Chico residents. Despite this, Chico’s number of orange-alert days has been sky-high this winter.

“It’s the most we’ve had,” said Jim Wagoner, air-pollution control officer with BCAQMD. Wagoner suspects the high number of orange-alert days is the result of a combination of weather—fewer storms to clear out the air, and more high-pressure inversions to trap smoke low to the ground—and better forecasting.

“In years past, there have been days that turned out to be bad days that we weren’t able to predict. We’re better at doing those predictions,” due to better modeling, he said.

Air quality for Chico is monitored at a small station on Manzanita Avenue run by the state Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board. The station monitors ozone levels and “PM 2.5,” or particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. Ozone, which Mandly calls “a summertime smog pollutant,” results in several yellow-alert days every year. But it’s the wintertime accumulation of PM 2.5 that results in unhealthful air worthy of keeping the kids inside.

The station “will draw in the air through a sampling inlet, and it’ll knock out any particulates that are over 2.5 microns in size,” Mandly said. The remaining tiny particles are the type that can lodge deep into the lungs and create or aggravate health issues, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Too many particles found in one sampling will push the BCAQMD to declare an orange or red alert. It’ll also help the Sacramento Valley Air Basin Smoke Management Program, run by the state, determine how many acres of agricultural land may be burned in Butte County for the day. The program allocates fewer acres to burn on days with higher PM 2.5 levels. Pass the threshold into an orange alert, and no acres can be burned, said Mandly. Roughly 14 percent of wintertime PM 2.5 comes from agricultural burning, according to the BCAQMD. The burning of diesel is another contributor of PM 2.5.

But the vast majority—possibly up to 75 percent, according to BCAQMD—comes from our homes’ chimneys. And our chimneys keep puffing.

Mahic, for one, doesn’t like that unincorporated Chapmantown residents are burning regardless of air quality, as their chimneys are not affected by the city mandate. And Roll finds the Check Before You Light program a nuisance, saying, “In the outer areas, everyone else burns.”

Mandly recognizes these problems, and admits that one’s neighbors may be the biggest factor in a yard’s air quality, saying “because smoke is kind of a localized issue, it definitely is a possibility that one part of town has much more smoke temporarily than another part of town.”