On September 9, 2020, San Francisco woke up to a blood-orange sky as a result of a record-setting wildfire season in the western United States. An unprecedented 4.2 million acres burned across California in 2020, almost double the acreage scorched in the 2019 season.
San Francisco was spared structural damages. But air pollution from fires meant that the city’s air quality quickly became among the worst in the world, kindling a record number of Spare the Air alerts in a single year. Residents were advised to remain indoors with windows closed and air purifiers running.
Wildfire risk is expected to be severe again this season due to an unusually dry winter.
For some San Francisco residents, wildfire smoke creates disproportionate challenges due to pre-existing conditions such as asthma or other barriers like poverty or lack of housing.
Bayview resident Tiffany Williams, a volunteer with environmental justice group Greenaction, believes the city could be doing more to protect its most vulnerable populations from air pollution caused by fires. Williams says she doesn’t have an air purifier, though she is hoping a friend will loan her one soon.
In the meantime, “it’s just like—we just live. There’s nothing we can do. If you can afford one, it’d be great to go and get one. But it’s not a necessity that everyone has that they can afford in the household,” she said.
“Maybe there should be something to help the people that can’t afford it,” Williams added.
The dangers of wildfire smoke
Though the effects of wildfire smoke are still being studied, a growing body of research suggests that smoke from blazes sickens and can even kill.
Exposure to smoke is associated with health issues including lead poisoning, severe asthma flare-ups and increased vulnerability to COVID-19, as well as long-term effects such as heart disease and cancer.
The component of wildfire smoke that experts worry most about is microscopic particulate matter known as PM2.5. These tiny particles can lodge deep in the lungs or pass into the bloodstream, causing toxic effects and inflammation leading to worsening disease symptoms.
Elderly people, children, individuals with pre-existing conditions, pregnant women and the homeless are all particularly vulnerable to harm from poor air quality, according to Dr. Naveena Bobba, San Francisco’s deputy director of health.
How to deal with smoky air
Health experts advise staying indoors with windows and doors closed if the Air Quality Index is greater than 150 for the general public or 100 for sensitive groups, and running air purifiers.
Bobba also emphasized preparedness.
“We know a wildfire event is generally more than one day. So making sure people are prepared—that they have food and water at home. All those kinds of planning efforts will make a difference,” she said.
In 2018, following the deadly Camp Fire, San Francisco’s Air Quality Index was over 150 for 12 consecutive days, peaking at 228.
At a Board of Supervisors hearing on July 22, a handful of city agencies including the Department of Public Health, Department of Emergency Management and Department of Homelessness detailed their plans for the 2021 wildfire season.
Their efforts include a mixture of emergency communication methods, city-operated weather relief centers and partnerships with community-based organizations.
On bad air quality days, San Francisco also makes N95 masks available for its vulnerable unsheltered homeless population, as well as for others “that potentially don’t have access to them,” according to Dr. Bobba. In 2020, more than 700 masks were distributed for this purpose.
But broadly speaking, the onus is on individuals to follow health recommendations to the best of their abilities.
“The more that we can do as a society to stem the tide of climate change—that will make a difference in the long term. In the shorter term, it is really preparing people for these episodes so that they can stay home during them,” said Bobba.
Disproportionate impact on at-risk communities
Some San Franciscans feel the city should do more to protect at-risk residents from wildfires.
“At this point—fires—we have to expect them almost every year,” said Dalila Adofo, an organizer with Greenaction. “There should be no reason why there’s no preparation, especially for people who do not have access to expensive things that can help.”
Smoke from blazes is especially threatening for San Francisco’s Black residents, who suffer from higher-than-average rates of respiratory diseases. According to a report by the San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership, asthma hospitalization rates are almost nine times higher among the city’s Black residents than white residents.
Bayview-Hunters Point is also highly exposed to air pollution, according to a 2014 report from the Planning Department, Department of Public Health and Bay Area Air Quality Management District. SOMA, Central Market/Tenderloin and the Financial District are similarly highly exposed.
Unequal access to air purifiers
In particular, Adofo wonders why the city isn’t offering at-need residents loans or vouchers for portable air purifiers, especially since those residents may not want to leave their homes and pets to travel to relief sites.
In 2020, Ashland, Oregon used grant money to purchase air purifiers for “smoke-vulnerable” residents. Since 2017, the Missoula, Montana-based nonprofit Climate Smart has also distributed air purifiers to residents who can’t easily afford one.
Francis Zamora, chief of staff at the Department of Emergency Management, told Here/Say that the city needs more solutions for portable air filters.
“What we’ve learned is that when governments set up weather relief centers, by and large people don’t go,” Zamora said. “Why would you leave your own shelter and go to a community center? So we’ve seen very low usage.”
The city is looking at ways to make these sites more attractive to residents, including solutions like providing transportation to and from the sites or identifying certain sites that allow pets or more personal belongings, citing successes in Portland and Seattle where similar solutions were implemented.
Meanwhile, Williams says air purifiers—which can run in the hundreds of dollars—are unaffordable for most of the Bayview-Hunters Point community where she lives.
“It’s not something that we go and get. We go to Costco and get groceries. We go get the milk, we go get the cereal, whatever it is. We don’t just go in there and buy an air purifier,” she said.
Lessons from COVID-19
The impact of wildfire smoke, like the impact of COVID, is disparate. Some of the communities most impacted by COVID-19 are likely to be vulnerable to wildfire smoke as well, said District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who called the wildfire hearing.
“We need to leverage the lessons learned from our COVID-19 response to build into our wildfire preparation plans and ensure that there is a long-term plan for how we are taking care of the most vulnerable,” Haney said.
Bobba said that the relationships and infrastructure built during last year’s emergency COVID-19 response will come in handy in the city’s response to wildfire smoke.
“A lot of our learnings from the COVID pandemic will definitely inform our fire quality, climate change and heat responses as well,” said Bobba. “All of the relationships that we’ve developed through COVID with our community-based partners will really help strengthen their responses.”
In the meantime, however, some residents are taking matters into their own hands: As part of an initiative called the Bayview Hunters Point Community Air Monitoring Project, Adofo and Williams are working to install ten air monitors throughout Bayview-Hunters Point to measure levels of particulate matter.
In addition to monitoring air quality, the project will issue alerts to residents and educate the community on how to file pollution complaints. They hope the data from the project will influence future policymaking.
“People can go and actually look at the statistics,” said Williams. “It’s hard and concrete. And sometimes that’s what you need to solidify it. I think the website and the air monitors really will help.”
“The goal is for nobody to have to be resilient,” added Adofo. “Hopefully we can get to a place where people just are happy and are thriving and don’t have to survive or overcome. Hopefully, this data will just make our argument that much stronger.”
Video by Lani Chan.Sophie Bearman can be reached at [email protected].