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Fire, Smoke, and N-95s

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

Northern California’s wine country lies about 45 miles North of San Francisco. There are two prominent valleys, lauded for their beauty and serenity, with rich soils and the perfect climate for growing grapes. The region produces some of the finest wines in the world.

I live and work in the town of Sonoma, located at the southernmost part of the Sonoma Valley. It’s a beautiful place and I consider myself fortunate to have made decisions that have allowed my family to grow and thrive in this small community. Our town is nestled quietly in a serene valley amongst hills covered in oak trees and dense vegetation.

Coastal breezes typically blow fog onshore and chill summer’s heat with natural air conditioning. Occasionally the winds shift and blow from the deserts to the sea, making them warm and dry. In Southern California, these winds are known as the Santa Ana’s, in Northern California they have a more sinister reference and are called the Diablos, or the Devils wind.

On Sunday Oct. 9th, 2017, the jet stream shifted and the region was preparing for high winds from the East, the Diablos were on their way. Forecasts predicted 50 to 70 miles per hour wind in the later part of the evening hours. The winter had been wet and vegetation had flourished. The heat of summer dried out the vegetation, setting the stage for a perfect storm. People in the know would recognize the risk of wild fires due to high winds, for most of us the wind itself was the concern. We would all find out later that high winds combined with low humidity (15% Rh) is a disastrous combination that would eventually leave over 40 people dead and thousands homeless.

I was awakened by the smell of smoke late Sunday night. Minutes later we received a text from a friend telling us she had just been evacuated from her home. I went outside and looked down the block startled to see the mountains on the East side of town glowing orange with flames and smoke rising into the dark sky. There were no sirens, no flashing lights, no indication that the first responders were even aware of the situation. Within two hours, we got news that a family we knew had lost their house to the fire, everything gone, little to no time to get out. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time we heard this story. It was a surreal experience. Surreal is a word I would hear over and over for the next two weeks.

The significance of being in a valley takes on a whole new meaning when you recognize that fires are burning out of control all around you. Perhaps the hardest thing to comprehend was why were there were no emergency crews on-site trying to contain the fires. We learned later that all available resources had been dispatched to Santa Rosa, approximately 25 miles to the north, where the situation was much worse. For nearly two days the fires burned on, out of control, as the first responders concentrated on evacuations first, saving human lives over property. It was a very strange feeling to watch several different fires burning without any suppression efforts.

Roads were closed in several directions soon after the fires began. We knew that if the situation got worse, there would be only one way out, and that’s what happened. By Monday, October 10th, fires in other regions had closed off routes to the north, south and east. The thought of being caught in a mass exodus with fire quick on your heels was very scary.

As you might imagine, that many wildfires burning out of control produces prodigious amounts of smoke. Eventually the smoke became so thick your eyes burned, your throat was sore, and having a headache was part of being awake. It was clear we would need to make some decisions about whether to stay or leave. At least we had the luxury of time; others had just minutes to make the same decision.

Prior to Sunday October 9th, only a handful of people in Sonoma had any idea about PM 2.5 counts or N95 ratings on face masks. As a home performance geek, I have attended several sessions at conferences related to indoor air quality. There are all kinds of nasty things that can contribute to poor air quality, including ozone, formaldehyde, and flame retardants with names so long they take up a whole sentence. Air quality is a complicated issue and adding fire to the mix multiplies the risk a thousand fold.

Particulate matter is usually referred to by the size of its particles. PM10 particulates are 10 microns or smaller. Most particles at this size get caught in your lungs and are frequently expelled by the body. The bigger problem are PM2.5s, which consist of particle smaller than 2.5 microns.

The problem with PM 2.5 particles is that they are small enough to pass through your lungs and directly enter your bloodstream. There are ways to protect yourself from the hazards of PM2.5. The simplest is to wear a mask over your face to keep them out of your body. The problem is you can’t just use any mask or a bandana; the mask must have a rating of N95 or above. N95 masks will keep out most PM 2.5 particles, while a standard face mask like the kind doctors wear in hospitals won’t. Before the fire, few people in Sonoma had N95 masks or even knew what they were. Now virtually everyone does.

I had N95 masks and an N100 respirator in my personal safety gear, as I have used them for years when crawling under houses or working in attics. Fortunately, we had enough for my family. Even though a couple of them were pretty dirty, they did the job. It’s a good thing, as the local hardware store sold out in the first couple hours and struggled to keep up with the demand. Many folks took it upon themselves going to neighboring towns, buying up complete stocks of N95 masks and returning to the valley giving them to people in need. One person even went as far as to drive around and distribute them for free from the back of his pick-up truck, the words “Free N95s” spelled out in masking tape on the back of his truck. It’s this type of behavior that makes me love being a part of this community. Two weeks ago, nobody would have known what this meant or wanted what he was offering.

Being in the middle of a natural disaster, you experience a wide range of feelings. Fear, hopelessness, anxiety, empathy, the emotions are wide-ranging and strong. Personally, I was torn by the decision to stay in town and help fight the fight or leave in order to protect my family from the noxious and dangerous smoke that was blanketing our world. In the end, the choice was relatively easy for me. As a home performance professional, I recognize the dangers of PM2.5, particularly when you include burning houses and cars in the mix, and I have kids.

We decided to leave town until the smoke cleared and to stay out of the way of the first responders. Others chose to stay and tough-it-out, many without face masks or any other form of protection.

Many people don’t realize that air quality is often reported along with weather information. Most weather sites use air quality reporting to help people prepare for allergy seasons etc. With the fires burning out of control, accurate PM2.5 information became the deciding factor on whether to stay or leave. For those of us who did evacuate, it played a huge role on deciding when we could return as well.

Air Quality Index

There is a great site called AirNow, provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You log on the site, enter your address and you can find out current conditions. How bad was the smoke? Visually it yellow, dense and heavy, something that kind of hung in the air like a thick fog without the moisture. Quantitatively it was off the charts, literally. Here’s a chart posted with Air Quality Index, which factors in what the source of the pollutant is. In most cases with fires the pollutant is primarily PM2.5.

Like us, many of our friends fled to safer ground. As mostly voluntary evacuees, we all started to monitor the AQI index as an indication of when we could return home. These numbers had real and significant meaning to us. The PM2.5 levels were effectively the metric that would allow us to return homes and our previous lives, hopefully.

So how bad was it and were we wise to leave? For the first couple of days the AQI was in the 300 range. Wednesday through Friday it was hovering at 450 and above. Even after we returned several days later, the counts were still in the high 100s. In my mind, there was no question that leaving the area and allowing the professionals room to work and contain the fires was the right decision.

Today marks the first day back to our regular routines. The kids are back in school, I am working from my desk, we have sports practices and dental appointments and I could not be any happier. It’s been a wild ride for the past two weeks. We all have stories to tell about our individual journey and outcomes, some of which are tragic.

One thing that has come from this madness is that people in the fire zone now know about PM2.5 and N95s. Perhaps this presents the opportunity to further educate the public on other building science principles and practices too.

I am happy to be home and have my regular set of concerns to deal with. There are literally thousands of people who have lost everything they had, and more. This event happened so fast there is really nothing that could have prevented it. One thing I know for sure is my disaster preparation now includes several N95 face masks, as earthquakes are not the only concern.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California

Image by Charles Cormany