The Devastating California Wine Country Fires Have Made The Air More Toxic Than Beijing's — And It's About To Get Worse

(People take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge as smoke from wildfires covers the San Francisco skyline Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.Eric Risberg/AP)
The smell of fire hangs in the air in San Francisco. Despite being located more than an hour's drive from the epicenter of what is being called one of the worst firestorms in state history, the breeze here blows heavy with soot." data-reactid="31">(People take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge as smoke from wildfires covers the San Francisco skyline Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.Eric Risberg/AP)

The smell of fire hangs in the air in San Francisco. Despite being located more than an hour's drive from the epicenter of what is being called one of the worst firestorms in state history, the breeze here blows heavy with soot.

Office workers wearing face masks crowd the streets. The area's homeless — who have no choice but to be outside — break out regularly into spates of coughing.

And it's about to get worse.

"Air quality is already worsening this afternoon throughout the Bay Area as winds have shifted from westerly to northerly," Daniel Alrick, a meteorologist for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told Business Insider on Wednesday afternoon. He said conditions will persist — and may worsen — through the weekend.

than Beijing's current reading of 122. It is classified as "unhealthy" and is a level 4 out of 6, with 1 being "good" and 6 being "hazardous."" data-reactid="35">On Thursday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency's air quality index for the Bay Area was 160 — higher than Beijing's current reading of 122. It is classified as "unhealthy" and is a level 4 out of 6, with 1 being "good" and 6 being "hazardous."

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(EPA)

eople with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children."" data-reactid="57">The forecast for the next few days in the region is much worse. In parts of the area, particularly north of San Francisco closer to the fires' epicenter, the air quality is expected to slide into the "very unhealthy" category — a level of 5 out of 6. The EPA's message to residents is clear: "Everyone ... should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion," especially "people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children."

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AQI sf forecast

(EPA)

In and around wine country in Santa Rosa and Napa Valley, strong, dry winds helped unite what began as a string of separate fires, pulling the blazes across swaths of fields and freeways. Officials estimate that more than 2,000 homes, businesses, and other structures in eight counties have now been devastated by the fires. At least 24 people are dead, and the death toll is expected to rise as rescue workers clear through the rubble. More than 460 people have been reported missing in Sonoma County.

The same currents are also spreading the dirty air across the Bay Area — in some cases all the way from wine country to the South Bay. People across the state are breathing in unhealthy air, putting people with asthma and other respiratory conditions at particular risk.

“We are reporting the worst air quality ever recorded for smoke in many parts of the Bay Area,” Tom Flannigan, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told the East Bay Times. “This is similar to what you see in Beijing, China in bad air days there.”

High soot readings, also known as particulates or PM2.5, are of the most concern to regulators. As of Wednesday afternoon, those levels are currently “very elevated," Kristine Roselius, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told SF Gate.

That pollutant is known to be harmful because of its ability to penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, where it can worsen respiratory issues and trigger asthma attacks.

Officials advise people in the area to stay indoors when possible and possibly leave the area until the forecast improves.

"Air quality is expected to remain unhealthy into the weekend as northerly winds are forecast to continue bringing smoke into the area," said Alrick.

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