The smoke around us

Health experts speak to air quality as wildfires continue to rage

The Cherokee Fire, as pictured on Sunday, Oct. 8.

The Cherokee Fire, as pictured on Sunday, Oct. 8.

Photo courtesy of Brandon Erdman

As wildfires rage through Northern California, some residents struggled to communicate with loved ones, while others came up with evacuation plans. Others simply fought to breathe.

“We just ask folks to be prepared when smoke does roll in,” said Jason Mandly, associate planner with the Butte County Air Quality Management District. “Smoke is a health issue.”

On Monday, county health officials released an advisory warning of poor air-quality conditions after smoke from the Cascade, Cherokee, Honey and La Porte fires began settling into the area.

As of Wednesday morning, the Cherokee Fire, burning near Cherokee Road and Zonalea Lane in Oroville, had burned 8,630 acres and was 45 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. Nearby, the Honey Fire had burned 90 acres leading up to Paradise and was 40 percent contained. The La Porte Fire, which ravaged Bangor early in the week, had burned 3,500 acres and was at 10 percent containment. Additionally, in Yuba County, the Cascade Fire burned over 12,000 acres and was only 20 percent contained. The Cascade and La Porte fires had merged into one large fire Tuesday night, known as the Wind Complex Fire.

Mandly said smoke was mostly affecting the southern half of Butte County, stemming from the fires in Oroville and Bangor, but that it likely would head north and settle in the foothills as well as the valley, pending a major change in fire activity.

“The main pollutants we are worried about with smoke are small particulates,” said Mandly. “We are concerned about that because it’s the stuff that can penetrate deep into your lungs and cause health impacts—especially for sensitive populations like children, older adults and those with pre-existing health conditions.”

Andy Miller, health officer with Butte County Public Health, also noted that smoke can be particularly burdensome on those with pre-existing health conditions, such as lung diseases or chronic heart disease. Those taking medications for respiratory or cardiovascular conditions should monitor how the smoke affects their health and seek care, possibly changing their medication.

“We all need to breathe,” he said.

Christina Chavira, spokeswoman for Enloe Medical Center, said neither the hospital nor the Prompt Care clinics had seen an increase in patients since the fires began. Officials at Feather River Hospital in Paradise could not be reached because of issues with their phones and Internet. Oroville Hospital could not provide information as of deadline.

The Butte County Air Quality Management District is using several devices throughout the county to measure the air quality, reporting the information to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website ( The Beta Attenuation Devices (BAMs) measure the air quality once every hour. The department also uses a portable device, called an eBAM, during more long-term fires. The county has not yet deployed the portable device, Mandly said.

On Wednesday, the Air Quality Index for the area was listed as moderate, which recommends especially sensitive people reduce prolonged or heavy exertion.

Mandly urged those in safer areas, where smoke might settle, to stay indoors and close windows and doors to dwellings to avoid smoke and to also avoid physical activity outside.

“We do try to make people aware that they should take steps to protect themselves from wildfire smoke and minimize the impact,” he said, referring to the advisories issued to the public.

Mandly said although there are some devices that help prevent smoke inhalation, there’s confusion about what types of masks are effective. He said particulates are so small that most masks are ineffective. He urged people to use masks equipped with HEPA filters.

“Folks like to go out and get dust masks during wildfire events,” he said. “We try to let folks know that some of the over-the-counter dust masks, hospital masks and bandanas, those are not effective in wildfire smoke.”