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December 2017/January 2018

Smoke Signals: Communicating with the Public about Air Quality

On Wednesday, October 11, San Francisco's skyline was clouded with smoke from the North Bay wildfires. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

By Leslie Stewart

On Monday, October 9, Carole Levenson complained to friends, “I woke up this morning and my building was full of smoke.” It had permeated her Oakland residence after traveling more than 40 miles, generated by fires which had started the night before in the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma.

Soon the smoke was affecting even South Bay locations. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a public health advisory, and smoke problems began receiving attention in the news and on social networks. Lisa Fasano, a spokesperson for the Air District, fielded calls from national media. “That’s how unprecedented this smoke situation was,” she explained, adding, “Air quality during the fires was the worst we’ve ever seen. Friday the 13th was the worst day — the whole area was blanketed, all over the Bay.”

For two weeks, a haze enveloped the region as firefighters struggled to contain what ended up being the deadliest set of fires in state history, claiming at least 42 lives across Northern California. While most reporting on the fires focused on emergency response and evacuations, the smoke still got plenty of attention. The whole episode offered an instructive case study of how authorities communicate with the public about air quality issues, and how effectively their messaging is received.

Smoke from the wildfires was quite visible, creating smoggy streetscapes and turning the sun red, but public health officials knew that the worst danger was invisible: tiny bits of soot, known as fine particulate matter, which can move deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream. They irritate airways, aggravate asthma, inhibit lung function, and can even affect the heart. Carbon monoxide is also a hazard, primarily in smoke close to smoldering fires, causing headaches, nausea, and dizziness, among other symptoms. Acrolein and formaldehyde, other respiratory irritants, are present as well. Beyond these standard pollutants, smoke from the North Bay wildfires contained a slew of by-products from the combustion of thousands of buildings and their contents. “We always tell people smoke is toxic,” explained Randy Sawyer, director of the Contra Costa Hazardous Materials Program, “but this was worse because of all the materials that burned in structural fires.”

Air quality and public health experts had already prepared considerable information about how people should protect themselves. A U.S. EPA resource document, Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials, had been completed in May 2016 for use in the 2017 fire season. It was based on material originally developed by staff from the California Air Resources Board and the California Department of Public Health.

Greg Vlasek, assistant secretary for local program coordination and emergency response at the California EPA, worked on the 2008 and 2012 versions of the guide. He credited the U.S. EPA for including information on health effects of smoke and recommendations for the most effective masks, specifically the N95 mask to protect against fine particulate matter. As Vlasek described it, “The guide gets into background that local health departments and air districts can use, not just for advisories, but to answer more detailed requests.”

Matt Conens, who handles media relations for the California Department of Public Health, confirmed by email that “the guide was used as a reference for the preparation of messaging and website information during the 2017 North Bay wildfires.” And Melanie Turner, a public information officer with the California Air Resources Board, recommended it to fellow public information officers at regional air districts. The guide is posted on U.S. EPA’s AirNow.gov, an air quality mapping and forecasting website that Turner told reporters to use as a resource. The website experienced extremely heavy traffic during the wildfires.

For many Bay Area news agencies, school districts, county public health departments, and emergency response agencies, the Air District was a primary source of information. Fasano pointed out that the Air District regularly addresses localized woodsmoke and wildfire air quality issues, using material drawn from a variety of sources. She referred media and the public to the Air District’s website with constant updates on fine particulate matter levels. Reporter Denis Cuff of the Bay Area News Group relied on air quality maps from the Air District as well as the AirNow website for his smoke-related coverage, which he noted received higher than usual readership.

Overall, messaging from information sources consistently focused on two main points. First, avoid smoke — especially important for people with health problems — by staying indoors, restricting the entry of outdoor air, and reducing outdoor activities such as jogging. Second, if exposure is unavoidable, get the right mask (N95 or P100), but be aware that it won’t work on children or bearded faces because a tight seal is essential.

How much traction did the messaging gain? It varied. The West Contra Costa School District sent copies of the Air District’s October 9 public health advisory on how to avoid smoke exposure to its school administrators. On Tuesday, October 10, acting on a new advisory, school district staff spent two days distributing masks to all staff and students; however, some recipients had to make do with less effective surgical masks, due to a shortage of N95 ones (which themselves would not provide an adequate seal on the faces of smaller kids anyway). West Contra Costa schools closed Thursday and Friday, and outdoor activities for students were limited again the following week when smoky conditions recurred.

Joshua Grossman, a Berkeley resident with a history of asthma, checked out air quality on the AirNow website and other news sites; he complained that although N95 masks were mentioned, he didn’t see any information about what they looked like or where to get them. Grossman, who is self-employed, chose to leave the area for a week.

In Fairfield, Bay Area Monitor writer Robin Meadows was exposed to greater risk. “At first I was concerned about how close the fires were,” she commented. “Then I realized that even indoors, with all the windows shut, the smoke was really bad and I was feeling unwell. That’s when I Googled ‘symptoms of smoke toxicity’ and decided I needed to leave.”

After evacuating her smoky home, Meadows spent some days with friends in a less smoke-impacted part of the North Bay. She relied on social media for information, checking county emergency response sources (particularly the sheriff’s department) and the NextDoor lists for her area, but saw little about smoke issues. For example, smoke alerts from the nearby Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District were primarily about where to expect smoke as the wind shifted, not what to do about exposure. She did see the advice to get N95 masks, but not where to get them.

On the other hand, Meadows mentioned she has friends with asthma living in San Francisco who obtained masks. The California Department of Public Health website includes a fact sheet on correct mask choices and sources. KTVU aired a segment on October 10 showing N95 masks, noting that the Air District was recommending them, and including an interview with a hardware store employee who said that the masks were selling fast in Oakland. The Monitor heard about one Bay Area resident who returned from a trip to New York with a stock of N95 masks in her luggage after hearing from friends about local shortages.

Residents of the North Bay, who were the most impacted by the smoke, had difficulty following the public health advisories, no matter how detailed; many people were unable either to leave or otherwise find ways to protect themselves. Recognizing the need, the Air District purchased N95 masks from sources outside the region, and sent 40,000 of them to shelters and emergency relief agencies. “They were experiencing very unhealthy air for a substantial amount of time, and there was no other respite we could give them,” said Fasano.

Air quality agency documents, websites, and press materials proved to be reliable resources for information about smoke. However, when people need news quickly about a developing emergency, they turn to smartphones, often using social media. Fasano considers the EPA guide too long and detailed to meet this need. According to Conens, it “is being tested in 2017 and simultaneously being revised into a 2018 version with a series of companion fact sheets.” However, more flexibility may be needed for public messaging, such as how the Air District’s Facebook and Twitter feeds included health advisory tips and links during the fires. An accurate, consistent message is already available; if agencies and news sources shape it to be easily accessible, everyone can benefit from it.

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.

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