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Wildfires Burn Up Air Quality Warnings, Leaving Public in Lurch

Feb. 13, 2019, 11:31 PM

Air pollution from California wildfires in 2017 and 2018 spiked so high and so rapidly that air quality models couldn’t keep up. That poses a problem for state officials charged with keeping the public informed about air quality.

Existing air quality indexes measure pollution from fine airborne particles and carbon monoxide on a 24-hour average, but that doesn’t capture how rapidly smoke from wildfires can reach unhealthy levels. New tools are needed to track those changes and keep the public informed, said Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates air quality throughout the San Francisco area.

“I don’t believe it is the appropriate tool when we experience unprecedented levels” of fine particle pollution, Broadbent told participants Feb. 13 at the Air & Waste Management Association seminar in Santa Rosa, Calif., where he also discussed the recent California wildfires.

Wildfires are no longer an anomaly in California, and they caused 16 of the top 20 particle pollution spikes in the Bay Area over the past year.

That presents new health concerns that require new methods of monitoring and measurement. For example, 2017 air quality readings for fine particles in Napa Valley spiked to 10 times the federal level as a result of the wildfires, Broadbent said.

Don’t Dumb Down

Rather than relying on “dumbed down” air quality indexes—depicting dangerous levels in red at one end and safe levels in green at the other—the advisories should be pegged to federal air quality standards for pollutants like particulate matter, said Alberto Ayala, executive director and air pollution control officer for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District.

The public is far more sophisticated about that type information now, Ayala told Bloomberg Environment on the sidelines of the conference.

He was in Beijing in 2009 when China was racing toward industrialization with little care given to air quality.

At the time, the populace was made aware of what constituted safe levels of particle pollution, and they started taking precautions, such as wearing masks or staying indoors.

“We don’t get enough credit to the public,” he said. “They will understand when we tell them that the particle pollution levels have exceeded the safe levels of 35 [micrograms per cubic meter] and are reaching unhealthy levels.”

Air quality officials need to get better at not just communicating how high pollution can get during fires but also but also the risks posed by breathing it.

Wildfires don’t just contain wood smoke from burning vegetation but also chemicals from homes and cars.

That can include carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and metals, according to John Balmes, a professor with the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Andrew Childers at