‘Shocking’ weather extends warnings | TheUnion.com

‘Shocking’ weather extends warnings

Warnings for extreme heat and foul air have been extended into Friday as Nevada County residents continue to suffer with searing 100-degree temperatures and a shifting pall of wildfire smoke.

The smoky conditions, which began 19 days ago, have led to the worst air quality here in years.

“People ask me, ‘When will the smoke end?'” said Joe Fish at the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District in Grass Valley, Wednesday. “Who knows? When will the fires end?

“Usually with a wildfire we get smoke for a day or two, but this has been going on for more than two weeks now: It’s unprecedented, it’s shocking,” said Fish, who has been taking air quality readings here for the past 15 years.

Individual wildfires from lightning strikes occur in the Sierra every year, but the 800 blazes caused by June 21 thunderstorms across the north state have fire experts shaking their heads.

The persistent heat and smoke from blazes in the Sierra south and north of Nevada County caused the air district and the National Weather Service in Sacramento to extend the warnings issued earlier in the week through Friday.

Both fire and weather officials are urging Nevada County and Northern California residents to stay indoors with air conditioning, if it’s available, to escape the heat and foul air.

Pets need to be protected, too. Police officials have received numerous calls this week about pets locked in vehicles, and residents are reminded that animals and small children can die quickly inside a closed vehicle on a hot day.

Western Nevada County already has recorded 15 days of ozone that exceeded federal safety standards this year, compared with nine in 2007, Fish said. For 13 days, particulate levels from the fires exceeded the federal standards.

If you can smell or see smoke, particulate levels are above safety standards, according to air-quality experts. Whenever the temperature reaches 90 or above, there is great potential for damaging ozone levels.

In the almost three weeks of fire activity here, the combination of smoke and high ozone levels have compounded bad air quality.

Ozone conditions in Grass Valley were at the 100-points level from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday night. That’s only one point below the 101-150 unhealthy range for sensitive individuals that triggers concern for the elderly, children, pregnant women, athletes and those with existing heart and lung conditions.

As temperatures climb near 100 degrees today through Friday, ozone levels could creep up into the unhealthy range for sensitive people again, or even the unhealthy range for all – at 151 to 200 points.

In addition, Fish said particulate levels have been dangerous the last few nights as well.

Predicting where the smoke will go each day also is close to impossible because of shifting winds in the Sierra that change with each new weather system.

“We can’t be too precise on smoke (predictions) because it moves around,” Fish said. “It cleans up and then comes back.”

To find out about air quality and what is predicted, Fish suggested residents visit the district Web site at http://www.myairdistrict.com.

Particulate respirator masks available at hardware stores that fit tightly can block some of the bad air, but not all, Fish said. Last week he said paper masks don’t do much of anything when particulates are this high.

Much of that smoke is now coming from the American River Complex of blazes in Placer County, which has reached 10,000 acres and is only 20 percent contained, according to the Tahoe National Forest.

More smoke is billowing out of the Canyon Complex, the Cub Complex and the BTU Lightning Complex along the Butte and Plumas County lines north of here.

The fires have caused thousands of people to flee Butte County, where 40 homes have gone up in flames.

One of the Butte evacuees lost his dog in downtown Grass Valley when it jumped out of his pickup truck just after midnight Wednesday morning. Officers quickly found the pooch and the man made an appearance at the police station to personally thank them.

The almost forgotten 2,000-acre Fall Fire near Bowman Lake in Nevada County is now being forced toward Canyon Creek by firefighters and is 95 percent contained, the U.S. Forest Service said.

State Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) on Wednesday urged the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to allow more thinning on the state’s forests to eliminate the dense fuels stoking the many wildfires.

To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail dmoller@theunion.com or call 477-4237.

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