Californians suffered the worst air quality in the nation Sept. 8, 2020 as wildfires burned across the west, contributing to dangerously high levels of particulate matter in the air, as shown here in a screenshot of a fire and smoke map by the United States Environmental Protection Agency at airnow.gov.

Airnow.gov

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Good morning, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Saturday, Sept. 19.

This week in Fresnoland, Monica reported on the displacement of most of the people of the federally recognized tribe of the Big Sandy Rancheria due to the Creek Fire and updated us on the horrible levels of air quality we’re experiencing. Dayana’s “Behind the Mask” highlighted how teachers are managing their classrooms from a distance.

It’s Dani Bergstrom, policy editor of Fresnoland, here.

As I’m writing, for the first time in what feels like weeks, I can see blue in the sky and my windows are open. What would normally be a familiar crisp September morning is now a collective experience of glee and a brief respite from living under the oppressively heavy smoke of the most intense wildfire season we’ve ever experienced in California.

In these extreme times, I wanted to talk to someone who could help provide good context and perspective to understand the magnitude of the poor air quality we’re dealing with right now. So, I turned to journalist Mark Grossi, who reported for The Fresno Bee for over 25 years on air quality, water, and the environment in central California. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

You’ve reported on air quality for over two decades. What has changed? What makes people pay attention to what’s going on in the air?

People respond when they have a longer-term perspective, an idea of the mortality of the situation. There are hundreds and hundreds — maybe a thousand people who die prematurely every year because of air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. If you look at the scientific studies, the overwhelming majority of these deaths are caused by exposure to PM 2.5, the very thing we’re breathing right now.

Do you think we’re going to have more premature deaths in the San Joaquin Valley because of wildfire smoke this season?

I have no doubt that there are people out there — your grandmother, your great uncle, someone’s small child with asthma — who are going to suffer greatly because of what’s going on right now. Possibly within several months, you will start to see the mortality from this.

The hard thing is that it’s hard to write about the direct connections between poor air quality events and death. That type of smoking gun doesn’t exist. Usually these [mortality studies] are done by epidemiologists who are looking at overall trends, autopsy reports, trying to understand where someone was, over time. It’s not something that you can say — a house was broken in, there was a shooting, and someone died. You can’t make those clear connections like that when it comes to air quality.

Most people don’t notice that their lungs are bothering them, if they’re younger.

We’ve faced hazardous levels of air quality during past wildfire seasons; has it ever been this bad?

In the past, we’ve gotten a week to 10 days of bad air like this — like in 2018 when the Camp Fire happened in Paradise and all of those people were killed so tragically. When you get the right conditions, it can happen. In 1990, there were fires near Yosemite; the smoke just poured into the Valley and just hung. It changed sunny days into cloudy days. That’s the first one I remember, and that’s 30 years ago.

I’ve never seen anything on this scale, never a full month like this, though.

What, about wildfire smoke, makes it particularly more hazardous for people, especially those with respiratory issues?

It’s just PM 2.5 — the very small stuff you can’t see with your naked eye. In any kind of combustion event, you get this dark, tar-like soot coming out. They’re slowly connecting that with cancer, heart problems, with lung problems, of course. The particles are so small they invade all of your defenses; they lodge deep in your lungs; they pass the blood barrier and can pass anywhere.

Basically, it can cause problems wherever you have problems. That’s why it’s so tough on older people and on the very young children who are still developing.

Do you think there will be a day in our lifetimes where the Valley could be uninhabitable to some because of climate-change induced challenges and air quality?

I think we’ve been there already for a few years. I have a good friend who moved to Utah because of the air. When he got there, he virtually stopped using his medication for asthma. This is a suffocating place.

I have heard researchers say that we are all on a continuum towards some chronic pulmonary problem — pneumonia, whatever — we’re all on this continuum. Some get there faster than others. It’s a very serious thing. There’s a lot of people my age who can remember having pneumonia more than once in the winter, or in the early spring, in the typical peak 2.5 season.

What we’re seeing here with hazardous levels of PM 2.5 in the air because of the smoke is typically a winter-time thing. Having this now, in late summer — that makes it weirder — we get both high ozone levels and PM 2.5 at the same time. It continues to add to the load of your body. Ozone is a corrosive gas that corrodes your skin, eyes, and lungs. And that’s a long-term thing that will scar up your lungs, make it look like you have a sunburn in there. It reduces your ability to breathe, fight colds.

What advice would you give to people looking to get more involved and hold local officials accountable?

I always tell people this: go to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District meetings; listen to what they’re saying; write a letter; write an email. It’s hard for people to fit this stuff in. And once you get into one of those meetings, you realize: this stuff is damn confusing. Atmospheric chemistry is tough to follow. We’re talking about stuff that people can’t see. It’s not like water, which, technically speaking, is a lot easier to follow.

The things that attracted me to write about this were activists and environmentalists, filing lawsuits and enforcing the Clean Air Act, suing EPA, sometimes the air district, and a lot of the time, they were winning. That’s what drew us in. Pay attention to what they’re saying and doing.

If water is the biggest story for industry in the Valley, air is the biggest story for our quality of living here in the Valley.

And now, the week’s top reads:

(For the most recent local coronavirus updates, visit www.fresnobee.com/coronavirus.)

Despite concerns about the economic impact of the pandemic and wildfires, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors approved a $3.9 billion budget this week. Fresno Bee

Many of the young people who were part of the Police Chief’s Youth Advisory Council that helped build trust between the community and the police say they have questions about a similar council which Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer said he plans to form when he takes office early next year. Fresno Bee

This year’s Fresno Fair experience will be like no other, but you can still enjoy the food and entertainment. Fresno Bee

More undocumented immigrants in California will receive a state tax credit worth hundreds of dollars, according to a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday. Fresno Bee

You may soon be able to dine inside most restaurants in Fresno, if the Fresno City Council gets its way. Fresno Bee

California’s insurance commissioner has a plan to give homeowners and communities living in risky, fire-prone areas greater incentives for reducing down wildfire risks. Sacramento Bee

The Yosemite National Park, the Kings Canyon National Park and the Sequoia National Park are closed because of smoke and hazardous air quality caused by California wildfires. Fresno Bee

The U.S. Marines and sailors will join the fight against the Creek Fire which has burnt about 248,256 acres in Fresno and Madera counties. Fresno Bee

Millions are house-rich but cash-poor. Wall Street landlords are ready. Wall Street Journal

Sierra Nevada reels while smoke and flames drive visitors away. CalMatters

Oil companies are profiting from illegal spills. California is letting them happen. ProPublica

A new law, SB 1159, makes it easier for essential employees who contract COVID-19 while working to be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation program. Los Angeles Times

Although the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to 860,000 last week, the figure is still higher than the unemployment figure had ever gotten before the pandemic hit. Los Angeles Times

A compromise on a stimulus bill seems unlikely as both Democrats and Republicans hold firm on their positions, dashing hopes of the unemployed and business owners for some relief. New York Times

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