- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2017

As wildfires in Northern California continue to devastate communities, survivors are dealing with exacerbated health problems from smoke inhalation and require mental health assistance to overcome the trauma of the disaster.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs an air quality index map, almost the entire San Francisco has an air quality over the index of 151, which means that sensitive groups should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion and should remain inside with cleaner air quality. Everyone else is advised to reduce time outside and heavy exertion.

The forecast for air quality for the weekend is only expected to get worse, with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District calling the levels of pollution “unprecedented,” and has delivered around 20,000 N95 masks — the type that can filter out small smoke particles — to fire impacted areas.

However, health officials warn against relying on masks entirely, and instead to limit time outdoors and exposure to poor air quality.

The Butte County Air Quality management district and the county’s public health department has issued a public advisory about poor conditions from at least four fires burning in the area.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said air quality was moderate by Friday morning but was expected to become “unhealthy” later in the day — which carries with it the warning that vulnerable populations should stay indoors and avoid any prolonged or heavy exertion.

Wildfire smoke can cause a variety of symptoms in people including coughing, trouble breathing, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, chest pain, headaches, asthma attack, tiredness, fast heartbeat and others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For particularly vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems, people are advised to pay attention to air quality reports and take steps to limit exposure to air with high levels of pollution. This includes staying indoors and sealing the home from the outside air, using an air filter, limit indoor air pollution by not lighting candles or starring fires, and not smoking. Other suggestions include not vacuuming because it stirs up air particles.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District also advises people to exercise caution when dealing with ash cleanup from the burnt wreckage. Fire ash can contain small amounts of cancer-causing material, according to the agency’s statement, and can also irritate the skin. Its presence also affects air quality and can be hazardous if inhaled.

In San Francisco, public schools remained open on Friday but advised that children should be kept indoors.

“There have been times where it has actually hurt to breathe, and I am an absolutely healthy man in my 30s, so there’s no reason why it should,” John Cipolvoda, a reporter with KQED in San Francisco told NPR on Friday morning.

“If you are elderly, if you are a child, if you have an already existing breathing condition, this has been horrendous. Make no mistake, it is the worst air quality on record here in the North Bay because of these Wildfires,” he said.

At least 31 people have died, California officials said late Thursday, and around 4,800 people are in 42 shelters across the region, with at least 20,000 people evacuated over the past week.

In some cases, police had to run into neighborhoods to bang on doors to get people to leave as the fires moved so quickly.

Sonoma county resident Ma’ayan Lieberman said she was in shock after having to run from her home in the early hours of Monday morning. She was awoken to the fires at 4 a.m. when a neighbor honked the car horn to alert residents.

“I’ve never had anything like this. … There is a lot of shock,” she said by phone on Wednesday. Dr. Lieberman, a psychiatrist, also suffers from asthma, which was exacerbated by the smoke. When she went back to check on her home, she said she couldn’t make it up the hill walking and a woman driving by gave her and her mother a lift to check on their apartment.

“She helped us get to the house and cried with us,” Dr. Lieberman said, and that despite her complex being the only one standing among the devastation of burned-out buildings, everything inside was ruined or compromised by the fire and smoke.

“We were so relieved and so sad, everything is gone, and I have nothing to go home to,” she said.

The hospital she works in, Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa, was evacuated because of the fires, but Dr. Lieberman said she was told to return to work on Friday.

“It’s a little ironic to have PTSD,” she said of thinking of returning to work. “When patients tell me their tragedies, which will be much worse than mine — I have a home, I’m safe, I have my family. It’s a strange luck,” she said.

Over five days into the fires, strong winds continue to push flames further into populated areas, where businesses, homes, cars and property are all charred to their skeletal frames.

At least 3,500 structures are destroyed as fires have burned almost 200,000 acres of land.

California Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that the fires are burning erratically and have the potential to shift in any direction due to critical dry humidity and windy conditions.

“The last several days has not been filled with good news,” he said. “We are a long way with being done with this catastrophe.”

Eight thousand firefighters are battling at least 21 fires, after two fires merged into one with at least eight counties in Northern California effected. Firefighters have succeeded in at least 45 percent containment of at least three fires, but expected strong winds over the weekend continue to exacerbate conditions.

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