A hazardous shroud of smoke hangs over Oakhurst.
Forest fires burning near Fish Camp, North Fork and Mariposa are spewing smoke filled with small particles of soot, ash and other pollutants over the mountain city, creating a toxic mixture that is forcing people to hunker down inside their homes.
A portable air pollution monitor in Oakhurst captured a one-hour peak for small particles on Tuesday more than six times higher than the level considered “hazardous to health.”
The monitor recorded 601 micrograms per cubic meter for small particulates known as PM 2.5. The federal government says 75 micrograms is hazardous.
But the Oakhurst reading doesn’t break a record for forest fire pollution. The Rough Fire in Hume Lake two years ago nearly reached 1,000 on the monitor.
Small particulates are not only harmful to people with respiratory conditions but can get into the lungs and the bloodstreams of even healthy people, potentially causing lung, heart and other health problems.
Jaime Holt, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said the Oakhurst smoke can build up because the city is shaped like a bowl that captures the soot. “It’s just pouring in there,” she said.
And pollution levels tend to increase overnight and in the early morning, she said, because cooler temperatures cause smoke to hug the ground.
The veil of smoke caused by the Railroad Fire in Fish Camp, the Mission Fire in North Fork and the Peak Fire in Mariposa caused school districts in Bass Lake and Oakhurst to start classes two hours late on Wednesday and to send children home from schools early – about 11:30 a.m.
Winds can shift, and the Chawanakee Unified School District in North Fork, which had closed schools earlier in the week, said on its website Wednesday that classes will be held Thursday and buses would be running. Outdoor activities would resume, but air quality and heat-related issues would be monitored, the district said.
This morning, it looked like we were in winter and we had one of our zero visibility days with fog.
Pamela Rico, nurse practitioner in Oakhurst
The smoke also made for interesting driving on Highway 41.
Pamela Rico, a nurse practitioner at the Adventist Health Medical Office-Oakhurst East, commutes to the clinic from her home in Rolling Hills, just north of Valley Children’s Hospital.
“This morning, it looked like we were in winter and we had one of our zero visibility days with fog,” she said.
Rico has been wearing a mask when she walks outside in Oakhurst. Many of her patients, on her advice, have been donning masks too.
Mona Guzman, a nurse practitioner at the other Adventist Health Medical Office in Oakhurst, didn’t need a pollution monitor to gauge the smoke Wednesday afternoon. Guzman, who lives in Oakhurst, deemed the sky “ominous,” and said “it’s very dark, the sun should be shining, but it’s not.”
Guzman said she’s not seen many patients with ailments they can relate to the smoke, but people with respiratory problems have needed refills on medications because they’ve been using them so much.
One of her patients, the mother of a 5-year-old, said it’s been difficult keeping her son inside and out of the smoke, but Guzman stayed firm: “I told her, she’s just going to have to nail him down. He just can’t go out there.”