Smog gets bad quickly in the San Joaquin Valley. Images taken just days apart show the dramatic shift
I considered putting on a cap before I went outside to confront the man in the white government vehicle at my neighbor’s curb, but decided to go scruffy that morning last January. I’m not big enough to intimidate anyone, so I went for the crazy look and let my remaining hair fly. My reflection in his Prius window was perfect; look up “Nick Nolte mugshot” and you’ll have the image. I burn wood every day, all day, all winter to heat my home and this guy was here to cite me for some fool regulation, I thought, and I wasn’t having it.
The bearded man rolled down his window with a smile, said he was from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and pointed to my neighbor’s chimney billowing white. “Today isn’t a burn day and that’s a no-no. We all want to breathe clean air, don’t we?” he asked. I came back with something lame like, “Our air is fine around here. We don’t need anybody to tell us what’s OK to breathe,” and glared at him for a few seconds before stomping back to my house. The air cop seemed more amused than afraid when he drove away, but I was still ticked because we had just lived through the nastiest, smokiest air ever from a distant source, and he’s tripping about that sorry little plume?
I’ve always rejected the idea that woodsmoke is a health hazard, to the point of being militant. It took a disaster to provide evidence backing me up.
No one in the Valley will forget the ides of last November when an orange haze passed for daylight and that gritty pall choked our eyes. It was like breathing sand paper, but we were the lucky ones who only got the smoke and not the actual Camp Fire in Butte County. According to data from the air district’s Outreach and Communications department, our air had “the highest readings in a very long time” and “the major source (of fine particulates) was the Camp Fire.”
With all that unhealthy air, I wondered why we weren’t stumbling over bodies and started asking for emergency room data from local hospitals. The just-released “facility reports” from the four biggest emergency rooms in Stanislaus County actually show a decrease in “encounters” (walk-ins and ambulance riders) for people diagnosed with respiratory crises from the last quarter of 2018, compared to 2017. Even with smoke wafting from the Camp Fire, fewer people showed up in our ERs complaining of breathing problems, compared with the year before.
These hospital reports are fascinating because you see just how much the state tracks every possible factor of our collective health and how information is such a slippery thing. Example: Seven people who spoke Estonian went to the Doctors Medical Center ER during the third quarter of 2018. Now, it could have been one frail Estonian who was brought in seven times, or perhaps several Estonians. The information collected is inadequate to determine whether these visits represent a health crisis across the totality of the Estonian community in the Central Valley or if some unlucky Estonians just got ahold of some bad burritos.
I know this data doesn’t say smoky air is fine to breathe. But we sucked unhealthy air for weeks and we handled it, according to some bottom-line measures. I hereby give the air district permission to post a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner above their executive office door. Then I want their FY 2020 budget cut to, say, $28 million, or half of this year’s. That might keep them from casing my neighborhood and let them focus on sensitive groups. Bay Area people are known for their sensitivity; our rep is for toughness. We’ve got this breathing thing down.
Steve Taylor, a behavior analyst, lives in Oakdale.
Editor’s note: Local commentary is offered to stimulate debate and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Modesto Bee.