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Most recent spike of toxic air pollution has officials rethinking alert system

The Fresno Bee - 12/17/2019

Dec. 17--A sudden and dangerous spike in Fresno's air quality last week has regional officials re-examining everything from burn-day approvals to public notification systems, authorities said.

But officials with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said the unexpected spike of hazardous particulate matter was the result of a perfect storm of circumstances in the Valley.

"Unfortunately, mother nature took a turn. We couldn't do anything," said Cassandra Melching, a communications representative with the air district.

Officials expected windy wet weather to blow clean air into the Valley on Dec. 10, hours before most of the day's agricultural and residential burns were set to happen. But the storm didn't produce expected results, said Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

The storm was weaker than expected, arrived late, and missed the Valley entirely, said Jim Bagnall, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford.

"Little wind, and no up and down movement ... that traps things in," Bagnall said.

The trapped smoke mixed with other Valley pollution, blanketing parts of the Valley in a fog of nasty air.

"Last week was one of those instances that we are seriously looking at," Holt said.

Lessons and reminders

Officials said it's difficult to know whether Dec. 10's incident caused any specific health issues.

Area hospitals on Monday reported a steady flow of patients with respiratory issues in recent days and weeks, though no severe conditions have been reported. Hospital staff couldn't say whether it was a cause of the air quality spike or some other issue such as flu season.

Air officials say they are learning from the event on better ways to regulate burn days and alert residents. They encourage Valley residents to use their Realtime Air Advisory Network (RAAN) app to stay up to date on air quality and use caution.

Holt said alerts went out on the RAAN app and encouraged Valley residents to utilize that service in the future. However, officials acknowledged by the time the alerts were sent out last week, it already was too late.

Since the storm was expected to clean out pollution early in the day, Holt said air district staff approved the burning of ag waste as well as wood in homes. The staff approves burning on a day-by-day basis and nothing about Dec. 10's forecast seemed alarming, she said.

The incident brings a reminder of the poor air quality conditions that exist and disproportionately affect parts of the state. Researchers at the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center found Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties get hit harder by air pollution than those to the north.

Such pollution contributes to poorer health, like heart-related diseases and deaths. The conditions are worse in black and Latino the researchers found, the researchers said.

Air district officials say most pollution comes from mobile sources, like vehicles. Holt said her office continues to search for ways to improve on wood and agricultural burning.

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