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Not So Fresh Air
by Alanna Brown — Special to the Tribune and Garrett Valenzuela
Aug 26, 2013 | 1485 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Smoky skies in the region have caused colorful sunsets despite poor air quality. The orange sky here is over the windmill landmark in Wingfield Springs Friday.
Smoky skies in the region have caused colorful sunsets despite poor air quality. The orange sky here is over the windmill landmark in Wingfield Springs Friday.
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“Sticky still” is the term that Phillip Ulibarri, the public information officer for the Washoe County Health District used to describe the current physical air quality.

Air quality advisories were sent out last Thursday through Sunday, notifying the pubic of the potential for poor air quality conditions. Widespread haze and smoky conditions will continue to affect southern Washoe County, especially valley locations, including Reno and Sparks. The past week of is the first major occurrence of multiple fires to affect the region since 2008.

“The highest was the 211 range. It is not there yet, but it could,” said Ulibarri.

Air quality is currently in the ‘Unhealthy’ range for sensitive groups, meaning that people with respiratory and heart disease, the elderly and children should avoid prolonged exertion. Everyone else should limit prolonged exertion. The smoke has been traveling from the Rim fire located by Yosemite National Park and the American fire near Auburn.

The smoky air has had largely negative effects on the people of Sparks, making them feel rather annoyed by the smoky air.

“Its harder to inhale and exhale the air when I’m outside because the smoke makes me feel as if I need to cough continuously rather than just being able to breathe like I normally would,” said Courtney Heaivilin, a Sparks resident.

Locals can monitor the air quality by getting on ourcleanair.com. Some ways to avoid the particulate matter are to stay indoors and turn on your air conditioning unit. A swamp cooler can help filter out the particulates as well. It’s a good idea to limit prolonged or heavy exertion and physical activity while outdoors. Masks can be worn but if you do use one, make sure it fits in order for them to work properly. Also, drink plenty of fluids.

The particulate matter is known as PM2.5 and is compromised of microscopic particles that travel deep into the lungs and it is the pollutant of concern found in wildfire smoke.

“As quickly as it blows in, it can blow out,” Ulibarri said.

•Beginning Monday morning, Washoe County School District principals were allowed discretion on whether to keep students indoors, according to Media Relations Manager Victoria Campbell.

“However, when the air quality worsened quickly and continued to worsen late this morning, a directive was issued from Student Health Services to principals and staff at all schools that students need to be kept indoors for ‘all aerobic activity, including recess and PE,’” Campbell said. “The Washoe County School District is monitoring the situation and will stay in contact with principals for the next several days with information.”

Last Friday, the Washoe County School District issued a directive in the early morning for all schools to prohibit outdoor activities, including recess, physical education classes and sports practices.

The directive came down from Student Health Services Director Dana Balchunas, who said Friday morning that AirNow, the government’s air quality monitoring website, reported a 120 Air Quality Index (AQI) for the Reno-Sparks area. The health-risk evaluating number rose to 166 by 10 a.m. and registered 168 at 12:05 p.m. ensuring that the decision to keep children off the playgrounds and practice fields was permitted.

“Yesterday (Thursday) the smoke came so fast and so suddenly, and late in the day, that when those events occur there is not a lot of time to blast out a message across the district,” Balchunas said Friday. “We rely on principals to make the right decision for their own children. Under normal circumstances, like this morning, I check, or one of my team members will check, at about 5:45 in the morning and check again by 8 a.m. because things change so quickly.

“It is now unhealthy for all populations. It was a good call on our part when it was 120.”

The AQI measurements range from 0 to 500 where the poorest air quality registered is 500. The system is broken down as follows: Good, 0-50; Moderate, 51-100; Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, 101-150; Unhealthy, 151-200; Very Unhealthy, 201-300; Hazardous, 301-500. Sensitive Groups include people with heart or lung conditions, small children and senior citizens.

Balchunas said that the level of smoke blanketing the Truckee Meadows is unprecedented in her time spent at WCSD Student Health Services.

“I have never dealt with anything to this extent,” she said. “I have never seen it this pervasive. Usually we will have pockets where it will be smokey in one area and not so much in another. That is definitely not happening with these fires, which from what I have heard are not going to end any time soon.”

Balchunas said uncertainty remains as to when the smoke and air will clear up in the Truckee Meadows, adding that keeping tuned to local media outlets and the WCSD website will help residents know when it is safe to extend time outdoors.

“Typically my department starts looking at specific precautions at about a 75, which is Moderate,” she said. “Before that, we usually leave day-to-day decisions to principals. That includes heat, cold and air quality. But when it hits 75, we have so many kids with asthma, allergies and cardiac conditions and various kinds of health conditions, that makes them more vulnerable.

“I have to look at the bigger picture and weigh the downside of keeping kids inside, and not out where they can get their energy and play time, versus protecting the kids that are vulnerable.”

Sparks Tribune reporter Garrett Valenzuela contributed to this report.
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