The air that I breathe

Daniel Inouye

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

As smoke from the American Fire in Placer County had Northern Nevadans choking, gagging and wheezing, we got to wondering, just how bad is this? Turns out, not as bad as those winter inversions, says Daniel Inouye, branch chief for the Air Quality Division of Washoe County.

Is all this smoke in the air dangerous?

It can be, depending on what the concentrations are. We've been getting some good mixing in the afternoons, but not every afternoon. This fire has been changing very rapidly.

I personally feel like I have allergic symptoms. Is that likely?

It wouldn't surprise me. Yes. And actually your body is the best indicator. If you are feeling the symptoms, or if you smell the smoke, and you feel the symptoms, you should take precautions, such as staying indoors with the windows closed and the air conditioner on, reducing strenuous activity and drinking lots of water.

I always wonder this. This feels like second-hand smoke, like when you’re in a casino. Is it actually carcinogenic or are there long-term problems associated with it?

It could have long-term problems if you're exposed to it for a long period of time and exposed to higher concentrations. It's different from cigarette smoke, but it is fine particulates that do go deep down into your respiratory system.

Back in the old days, like 300 years ago, wouldn’t our air be like this all the time? If there was a fire, wouldn’t it have just burned?

There would be smoke in the air, but not to this extent. We've gone through many years of suppressing all fires, and the fuel loading is really increased. So when we have these fires, it's really burning a lot of the forest that would have burned naturally.

Is there anything that can be done besides staying inside? Are there other treatments?

Those would be the best measures: to reduce exposure, and then also reduce strenuous physical activity.

Is there actually a smoke-in-the-air defined season?

Normally, it used to be spring, summer and fall, but we've seen wildfires in the wintertime with the Washoe Drive Fire and the Caughlin Fire. The fire season is becoming longer.

Is there anything else we should talk about?

We have some good air quality information on our website. It's That will take you right to the Air Quality Management Division website. Normally this is our ozone season, so we would be expecting ozone, but this wildfire is causing the PM 2.5 levels [particulate matter that are two and one half microns or less in width] to increase quite a bit. Also with these PM 2.5 levels, it's not unusual to see these type of levels in the wintertime, when we have those strong wintertime temperature inversions, and that's when we call those red burn codes.

Yes, but I haven’t seen any warnings like that with this fire.

The air quality index has been kind of floating around from the upper 80s and 90s into the 100s, 110s, 120s. One thing with that is it really changes very quickly. …

Sunday, within 45 minutes, it went from blue skies to where I could see swirls of smoke in the air.

What caused that was there were thunderstorms on the other side of the Sierra, and thunderstorms have downdrafts, and that downdraft pushed the smoke from the fire east into the Truckee Meadows. It came in like a coastal fog.