Animation Shows California Air Quality Is Worst in the World from Wildfires
Since California wildfires began on Thursday, they have had a sweeping effect far beyond the original bounds of the flames, as air pollution levels in the state have since spiked to levels that are the worst in the world, according to data from PurpleAir, an air monitoring firm.
Of the three main fires, firefighters have completely contained the Hill Fire, but continue to battle the Woolsey Fire in Venture and Los Angeles County (69 percent containment) and Camp Fire in Butte County (45 percent containment). With over 600 people reported missing, 63 dead, and over 12,000 structures destroyed, the Camp Fire proves particularly devastating.
PurpleAir manufactures and places air quality sensors and uses wifi to give updates on air quality every 80 seconds, following the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) scale. The AQI runs from 0 to 500: 0-50 indicates good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 means unhealthy for “sensitive groups”, 151-200 is “unhealthy”, 201-300 ramps up to “very unhealthy”, and finally 301-500 is straight up hazardous, according to AirNow. Equipped with laser particle counters, PurpleAir’s sensors count particles in a range of sizes, from 0.3 to 10 micrometers, giving a final rank based on micrometers per square meter.
As the video above shows, the air quality in California was the worst in the world, according to data from PurpleAir, on Monday morning.
Satellite imaging from NOAA shows that the threat has only grown. The grassroots organization PurpleAir’s sensors tell us exactly how much.
The below satellite image captured by NOAA-20 on Monday, November 12, shows the fires:
Since Monday, the smoke had spread to cover larger swaths of California. This satellite image was taken Thursday, November 15:
As of Friday morning, Oroville, a city in Butte County, ranks beyond the index itself, with an hourly average of 535 AQI. At that point, everyone is at risk, regardless of health condition, according to the federal government service AirNow. The best choice is to stay indoors.
With a cluster of sensors reading AQIs above 300, even hitting 402 AQI, West Sacramento is yet another hot spot of pollution. Many regions’ air closer to the Pacific all qualifies as “very unhealthy”: Vallejo and San Francisco hover around 300 and Berkeley’s numbers clock in around 250.
Across all ages, from elementary to collegiate levels, schools have temporarily closed in responds to the hazardous conditions, according to ABC7. The cancellations have kept more than a million public school students, or 18 percent of the state’s public school population, from school this week, CALmatters reports.
How Residents Can Stay Safe
In a tweet, the California Department of Public Health urged residents to stay indoors, or use proper respirator masks if they must venture outside. Typical dust masks don’t provide adequate protection against small particles and might even create a false sense of security. Masks with higher ratings, marked “P95,” “R95,” or “N95” provide more protection, but “P100,” “R100,” or “N100” work even more effectively, when worn correctly.
Californians await a storm to flush out the high concentrations of soot in the air. Meteorologists don’t anticipate much improvement over the weekend, but next week’s change of wind direction could blow winds northeast and precipitation could bring residents some rainy relief.
“The amount of rain and where it will fall the most is still up in the air, but things are looking pretty good,” weather forecaster Steve Anderson from the National Weather Service, told Mercury News. “The humidity will go way up. It will help lay down the fire and help the fire crews to make faster progress on it.”
Wildfires emit a cocktail of pollutants, including aerosols, CO2, and other greenhouse gases that harm people and the environment. Fine particles like these aerosols post the largest health risk. For example, black carbon can absorb heat in the air, directly contributing to global warming while causing respiratory problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These particles leave children, the elderly, or those suffering from heart or lung diseases at especially high risk.
Note: As of 2 p.m. EST, Purple Air reports experiencing server issues, but a representative told Inverse their sensor map is expected to repopulate within the next hour or so.