- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2017

Survivors of Northern California’s wildfires are dealing with exacerbated health problems from smoke inhalation and mental trauma, even as state fire authorities say they have turned a corner in battling several of the blazes that have devastated the wine country.

Meanwhile, officials said the fires that ignited last weekend have killed at least 40 people and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and other structures. As of Sunday, roughly 75,000 people were under evacuation orders, down from nearly 100,000 the day before.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs an air quality index map, almost the entire San Francisco Bay Area 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 avoid heavy exertion.

The forecast for air quality 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 affected areas.

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

Nonetheless, some counties were preparing to let more evacuees return to their homes amid improving weather. The winds that have been fanning the deadliest and most destructive cluster of wildfires in California history did not kick up overnight as much as feared.

“Conditions have drastically changed from just 24 hours ago, and that is definitely a very good sign. And it’s probably a sign we’ve turned a corner on these fires,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We’re starting to see fires with containment numbers in the 50 and 60 percent, so we’re definitely getting the upper hand on these fires.”

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 particles.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District also advises people to exercise caution when dealing with ash cleanup from the burned 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 Friday but advised that children 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,” Mr. Cipolvoda said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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