Wildfire pollution: a personal account

2020 is California’s worst fire season on historical record. Here in Berkeley, California, we were fortunate enough to never have evacuation warnings. What we got instead were unhealthy levels of pollution for a straight month. This happened all across the west coast.

There was one day–September 9th to be exact–when the sky turned a bright orange that people were comparing to Blade Runner 2049. Everyone and their mother took pictures of the sky that day–us included–and I imagine that these will be plastered everywhere as symbols of climate change for years to come.

The inside story is that September 9th was actually a brief reprieve, the pollution equivalent of the eye of the storm. I don’t understand the meteorology of it, but newspapers said that the sky was orange because the pollution was up there rather than down on the ground level. The worst was actually the next day, when the AQI reached the 300s.

Map of AQI in the SF bay area. In many parts of the bay, it reached 300.

A screenshot of the AQI on September 10th

The AQI, or air quality index, is a measure of the amount of pollution in the air. 0-50 is “good”, 50-100 is “moderate”, 100-150 is “unhealthy for sensitive groups” or USG, 150-200 is “unhealthy”, 201-300 is “very unhealthy”, and 300+ is “hazardous”. “Sensitive groups” means me, I have asthma.  It was in the low 200s for most of the month.

Anyway, here’s our photo from the day before, although it’s not very good.

photo of orange sky, as seen from a balcony, with some scaffolding in the way

Our photo of the orange sky

Let me explain why the photo is ugly. For one thing, the lighting was too dim, despite it being two hours after sunrise. Also, I did not want to go outside, the improved air quality notwithstanding, so it’s just a photo through the window to our balcony. Finally, there’s scaffolding in the way, because our apartment building had hired painters that week. Yes, those painters were working straight through the pollution, and yes I felt awful for them.

Sorry to say that pollution is usually not pretty, it’s just bad. Usually all it looks like is a subtle white fog. The more obvious thing is the smell. The way it tastes if I breathe it for a long time. The way it aggravates my cough. And probably the worst symptom I get is the eye irritation–crippling if untreated.

It’s possible I’m more aware of this than most people, because of my asthma. I asked my brother how the air quality was down in Southern California, and he didn’t even know! He just said, “oh, maybe that’s why I’ve been coughing lately”. Incredible.

Even if you don’t pay attention to it, wildfire pollution matters a great deal. In my brief research, I found that pollution from wildfires is estimated to cause 339k deaths per year, as compared to the 2.4k caused by wildfires directly.

Although this was the worst year in California history, it was not totally new, and we were not unprepared. The second worst year in history was just two years ago, in 2018, when air quality was unhealthy for about two weeks. During that period, I learned a few things:

  • Pollution will get into our apartment. So we bought a HEPA air filter. This past month, we bought a second one.
  • It is possible to overdose on albuterol, and sometimes this can cause trouble breathing. In 2018 I once had a panic attack because I had forgotten that I could overdose.
  • N95 masks or better are necessary to block out smoke.
  • Unfortunately, I subsequently learned that people with asthma are not recommended to wear N95 masks for prolonged periods, because it makes it difficult to breathe. So this whole time people have been arguing about “hypoxia” arising from COVID face masks–a myth with respect to cloth masks, but in some cases true of N95 masks (sort of)–I’ve been internally raging at everyone. I will occasionally use the N95 mask, but generally I stick to double-layer cloth masks that I made from old T-shirts.

In the last week, air quality has greatly improved, at least at our location. Maybe that’s the end of it for this year? But I fear it will only get worse.


  1. PaulBC says

    Nothing really cogent to add here, but I live in Mountain View, and wow September 9 was something else. The next day was pretty bad but I didn’t need to turn the lights on during the day.

  2. bmiller says

    Solano County resident here. And that was one of the strangest things I have ever seen. A former coworker who has become rather strident in his dotage told me I needed to look outside and get right with Jesus.

    One struggle for me is I have an obsession with road cycling. Not racing, but I typically ride over 200 miles a week. And not being able to ride when the air is “hazardous” is really nerve wracking for me. Especially given that my gym is closed now due to COVID. Without vigorous exercise I get VERY cranky, and I know that I STILL rode a couple of days that were very, very marginal. 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *