Dude, What Have You Been Smoking?


Since last Friday the air quality has been ghastly in the Bay Area because of the ubiquitous wildfires. For those who dwell in San Francisco or coastside it’s been perhaps less polluted at times; for those of us in the East and South Bay it’s been varying between ‘unhealthy’ to verifiably dangerous levels. Since the dozens of wildfires started over a week ago we’ve also been enduring an unusually long and withering heat wave that has intensified the smokiness by trapping much of the particulates at ground level in place. With no coastal breeze to blow the smoke inland we’re pretty much stuck inhaling the same smoke over and over.

Over here in Contra Costa the smoke has been eerie but not unfamiliar: two years ago with the Camp Fire we had air quality this bad, so bad that the haze looked like benign fog. Except it wasn’t. Three years ago we had the Tubbs Fire, which didn’t cause as much havoc with our air as the Camp Fire in 2018 or even today’s fires. I rode during the Tubbs Fire without misgivings. But the following year the Camp Fire was so bad that after one day of riding outside—even with a Respro mask—I gave up; I was coughing incessantly anyway until the winds changed a week or so later and moved the smoke out. This time I’m not making the same mistake. As soon as the air quality warning was raised, I hunkered down indoors. We have two HEPA filters running constantly and we are also running air conditioning not just to cool the house down but to do some additional filtering. I haven’t been outside much, let alone to ride, since the fires began over ten days ago. At night we run the AC and HEPA filter in the bedroom; in the morning when I open the bedroom door the house smells of smoke until we run the filters in the other rooms.

One of our ‘downtime’ projects has been constructing a new greenhouse. We go outside in the early morning to get as much work done as possible before the heat increases. We wear N95 masks when working; even so I get headaches from breathing in the smoke and have to retreat indoors to recover.

Despite the pollution if you’ve still gone riding outdoors, you’re made of hardier stock than I. Riding in this thick smoke is like smoking a pack of cigarettes! And if you think ‘Well, it’s just smoke—it may smell funny but it won’t harm me”, keep in mind that exposure to air pollution can not just exacerbate COPD but also cause it. All that aerobic training torn down simply by breathing in smoke. That said getting a fix from riding is good for your mental health especially these days. But during this season of hellacious wildfires I would caution you to ‘exercise’ discretion rather than your legs.

[8/25: Here’s an informative read on how wildfire smoke damages your lungs.]

Next up: swarms of locusts!

One thought on “Dude, What Have You Been Smoking?

  1. I’ve been following air quality pretty closely for the past week on the airnow.gov Web site. Like with temperature, air quality in the Bay area can vary pretty drastically from one location to another and at different times of day. For central SF (the Castro) air quality has mostly been in the yellow category (moderate) but usually dips into the green category (good) at night and then spikes into orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups) for a few hours during the late morning and early afternoon before the onshore winds pick up and clear the smoke out. On 3 of the last 6 days, the spike even reached red (unhealthy). Fortunately, just a couple of miles west of here (on the other side of Twin Peaks, Tank Hill, and Mt Olympus) air quality is almost always a full category cleaner. That means air quality is almost always green with spikes into yellow for a few hours during the late morning/early afternoon. By adjusting when and where I cycle, I’ve been able to maintain my regular amount of cycling while always breathing clean air. Of course, this is with the typical onshore wind pattern. If the pattern shifts to offshore winds, all bets are off.



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