A shift in wind direction was expected to divert the smoke of one wildfire from the Northern San Joaquin Valley and replace it with ash and soot from another fire, air quality officials said Thursday.
According to the most recent forecast, the air today will be unhealthy for young children, the elderly and people with chronic diseases in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties. A Spare the Air advisory is in effect today; residents are urged to reduce pollution by car pooling, taking their lunch to work and not using gas- powered lawn mowers.
The smoke that sullied the sky over the valley Wednesday and Thursday came from a fire in Plumas County. Driven by winds out of the north, the smoke drifted into the Sacramento Valley and then the San Joaquin Valley, and also migrated over the Bay Area and offshore.
Meteorologists predicted the wind will shift early today to more of a west-to-east direction. That was expected to push the smoke originating in Plumas County into Nevada. It's also expected to send the smoke from the Lick fire, in Santa Clara and western Stanislaus counties, over the Diablo mountains into the San Joaquin Valley air basin.
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Stanislaus County, which is directly east of the Lick fire, could get a lot of the smoke and nearby counties could be affected.
"We get a respite from one fire, but unfortunately we have to deal with another fire," said Shawn Ferreria, a project planner with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
The pollution control district said the smoke-filled air Thursday was unhealthy for the general public in Stanislaus and Merced counties.
Air district officials cautioned against engaging in strenuous activity outdoors, and the advisory extended to school sports activities, including the first games of the high school football season in the Stanislaus area.
"It is a bad idea to engage in any kind of sports activities in a situation like this," said Anthony Presto, an air district spokesman, at a news conference Thursday morning in Modesto.
Modesto City Schools did not cancel sports events Thursday or games scheduled for today.
District administrators discussed the air quality advisory and decided to go on with the game Thursday evening between the Davis High Spartans and Ceres High Bulldogs at the Johansen High School stadium, said Shannon Craghead, a spokeswoman for Modesto City Schools.
School response varies
School district officials planned to monitor air quality today, and keep in touch with other school districts that are doing the same.
Craghead said the pollution Thursday was near the margin between orange, the level considered unhealthy for sensitive individuals, and red, which is considered unhealthy for everyone. If the dirty air were higher in the red zone, it could result in canceling outdoor games, she said.
"It is cautionary," she said of the air district advisory. "Coaches really keep an eye on the athletes and make sure they get plenty of water and plenty of breaks."
She added that individual students can choose whether to participate in athletics.
Buhach Colony High School in Atwater postponed outdoor events, including a varsity soccer game against Central Valley of Ceres, and all of its practices. "It's pretty soupy out here," said Jill Scorby, Student Services secretary. "In situations like this, you just want to cover your bases."
Beyer High School let the games go on.
"So far, it hasn't affected us," said Paul Cornwell, athletic director for Beyer High School. "Everybody's playing. You just tell people to be careful out there."
A water polo game scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday between Pitman High School of Turlock and Johansen was delayed about 10 minutes until officials learned the air quality had gone from red to a cleaner condition, said Jim Parker, Pitman's athletic director.
'Hitting the inhalers pretty good'
Pitman's Susie Carlson plays on the varsity water polo team, which lost 10-9 to Johansen. "A bunch of us on the team have asthma," she said. "A lot of us were hitting the inhalers pretty good. We heard they weren't going to play today until the air got better."
Manteca High School's athletic director said no games were canceled.
Ferreria said the wind, 5 to 15 mph today, probably will not be strong enough to drive the smoke from the valley. The poor conditions were expected to persist for a few days. He advised sports teams to hold practices inside a gymnasium if possible and monitor the air quality daily on the district's Web site.
Thursday morning, an air quality reading taken in Turlock was three times above the normal concentration for small particles. Officials said the air conditions can damage lungs, trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate cardiovascular disease.
It's best for children, the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases to stay indoors, officials said.
As of Thursday evening, the Lick fire had burned 27,000 acres and destroyed one outbuilding. The fire was 35 percent contained and there was no estimate of when it will be brought under control.
The portion of the fire in western Stanislaus County was in remote, steep terrain with thick brush and scrub oak that hasn't burned in decades, said Gary Hinshaw, county fire warden. About 1,850 firefighters have been trying to control the fire in the inaccessible terrain, including two strike teams from Stanislaus County.
Smokes from the Plumas fire spreads
Real-time view from the National Weather Service
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.