Santa Clara County Library District facilities like this one provided residents with respite from the smoke during the November wildfires last year. Photo courtesy the Santa Clara County Library District.

In November 2018, as the Bay Area was overwhelmed by smoke for the second year in a row, Santa Clara County agencies quickly adapted emergency plans for protecting vulnerable residents during extreme weather. Instead of sending people to facilities for keeping cool or staying warm, officials focused on getting them to indoor spaces with safer air quality.

The county’s Office of Emergency Management worked with cities and associated law enforcement agencies to expand the availability of public facilities throughout the county that could offer residents a respite from the smoke. “We call them ‘Cleaner Air Shelters’,” explained Public Risk Communication Officer Patty Eaton, “because they really can’t provide healthy air, but it’s better than what is outside.”

She remarked that last fall’s collaborative response to the threat “was an unprecedented effort, but we’re planning to do it again if necessary.”

Agencies throughout the Bay Area are recognizing that wildfires are an increasingly frequent emergency and therefore communities need to prepare for smoke events. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District board was briefed recently on the progress of the agency’s wildfire air quality response program, which outlines how a growing partnership of organizations will prepare for smoke events, with an emphasis on reducing and mitigating the associated health effects.

As the briefing demonstrated, a primary focus of preparation will be the creation of Clean Air Centers to provide respite and cleaner air to those in need when wildfire smoke affects the region. Officials endorse upgrading air filtration systems for protecting health and as the long-term solution to prepare for wildfire smoke.

This option is favored over masks, which according to experts have many shortcomings. Even N95 masks that are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for worker health and safety must be fit-tested to ensure their effectiveness. When not sized properly or fit-tested, masks can make it harder to breathe, and trap fine particles in the breathing zone if taken on and off. People with facial hair don’t get a proper seal around masks, and masking is not recommended for children.

Under their program, the Air District is hoping to partner with the Red Cross to help provide air filtration equipment so that more than 1,000 existing Red Cross facilities in the region can be used as Clean Air Centers if needed. These facilities include schools and colleges, and other communal spaces such as community centers, libraries, government buildings, and event centers.

The Red Cross also sees the importance of evaluating which shelters should be prioritized to open during a catastrophic smoke event. Red Cross shelters are typically opened close to a disaster site, which can mean a greater smoke burden. Conversely, smoke can affect people living miles away from the source, and can inundate vastly large areas. Because wildfires are unpredictable and the potential impact from smoke is so great, officials hope to encourage local partnerships with the Red Cross in order to help expand the number of Clean Air Centers and provide a network of facilities that can be made available during a smoke emergency.

Tracy Lee, from the Air District’s compliance and enforcement division, stressed to the agency’s board that shelters or evacuation centers are different from Clean Air Centers. Not all current Red Cross facilities are adequately equipped to serve as Clean Air Centers. For example, many are in schools; schools often closed during last year’s heavy smoke because they could not protect their staff and students, and many would need better filtration to serve as Clean Air Centers.

Providing the necessary upgrades to air filtration systems wouldn’t just help prepare for emergency situations; as Lee observed, “Improvements in schools and recreation centers also have daily benefits.” The Air District has funded such upgrades in the past, paying for improved air filtration retrofits for five elementary schools in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood less than a decade ago. This past spring, the Air District approved a new program funding similar retrofits at selected schools in communities prioritized for an air quality monitoring program launched via Assembly Bill 617 (C. Garcia).

The agency has estimated that retrofitting every high school in the region to serve as a shelter would cost approximately $50 million, but for facilities which normally experience good air quality, investing in permanent filtration upgrades may not be necessary. Air District Communications Officer Lisa Fasano told the Monitor that because of their flexibility, portable units could serve the region’s needs during most emergencies. During the Camp Fire last November, the Red Cross had difficulty obtaining enough mobile industrial-grade air filtration units for their evacuation shelters. The Air District proposes to purchase portable air filtration units that will be warehoused by the Red Cross and deployed to the appropriate areas when an event occurs.

“Cleaner air shelters” like those set up in Santa Clara County last fall may be the preferred option for some communities, based on their perceived potential need. Other communities may choose to go farther and retrofit facilities to use as Clean Air Centers. Dan Bowers, emergency management director for Sacramento, described how the city improved weatherization and installed carbon filters at two community centers that served as Clean Air Centers last fall. “It improved the Air Quality Index, but not enough for sensitive populations,” he reported. An engineering consultant has advised the city on adding sensors, improving air ducts, and isolating indoor air from smoke, possibly with “air curtains” to force air outward at entrances. A downtown senior center may receive similar upgrades.

Speaking to the Air District board, two health officials — Dr. Shruti Dhapodkar of San Mateo County and Dr. Jan Gurley of San Francisco — strongly supported adding weatherization and filtration to buildings as the most effective protection against smoke. Gurley emphasized that N95 respirator masks have their own health concerns because of the effort needed to breathe through them. Dhapodkar cited research indicating that investing in filters protects more people and costs far less than purchasing single-use masks.

Funding for some portable filtration units, as well as more permanent ventilation improvements, may be available through a new law, Assembly Bill 836 (Wicks), which at press time was still awaiting the governor’s signature. It would create a statewide incentive program funding ventilation retrofits to create Clean Air Centers for vulnerable populations. Funds may come from a wildfire bond issue expected to be on the November 2020 ballot.

Another important aspect of operating emergency sheltering facilities is communicating with the community about when and where to use them. In the Bay Area, a regional messaging toolkit will help provide agencies, health departments, and others communicating to the public about smoke with coordinated information to residents and visitors on air quality conditions, tips for making homes smoke-resistant, and alerts on when to consider using shelters. Gurley told the Air District board, “You should not be out looking for a better option if your home [air quality] is already better than outdoors.”

While not specifically focused on air quality, many emergency management agencies have local alert systems and also post online using social media and platforms such as NextDoor. Emergency managers also suggest using alert services such as Nixle. Fasano recommended signing up for alerts in both home and work locations. In Santa Clara County, homeless residents can access extreme weather alerts on their phones by texting a message to the homeless support agency.

An important addition to the public messaging is that in hot weather, staying cool is more important than breathing cleaner air, even for those with respiratory problems. “You cannot stay indoors in 100-degree heat with no air conditioning,” Gurley said, adding that “some of our most frail die in these circumstances, and they die very quickly.”

Agencies hope that clear and consistent messaging will reinforce basic smoke-protection information that was sometimes ineffective in the past. Eaton recalled, “Last fall, I was driving home in the heavy smoke and saw kids playing soccer in the park.” During future smoke events, the goal is to have those children sheltered in a smoke-protected home or Clean Air Center instead.

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.