Concerns with bad air force rescheduling of some events

Air quality officials issued warnings to school athletic programs this week that if they can smell the smoke from the wildland fires in Northern California, it can be harmful to competing athletes.

A few school districts postponed or moved games due to poor air quality, while others let their teams compete despite the soot and ash in the air.

School officials and athletic directors from Stockton to Fresno had to make judgment calls based on their assessment of conditions that varied depending on where teams were scheduled to play.

Two football games were rescheduled for today because of air quality concerns. Le Grand and Chowchilla will play today at Le Grand at noon. And Delhi, originally scheduled to play host to San Marin of Novato, will instead travel to San Marin for an 8 p.m. kickoff tonight.

The air quality won't affect the Modesto Youth Soccer Association from opening its season today, said Don Scott, MYSA deputy commissioner.

"It's up to the parents if they want their kids to play," Scott said. "There's no way in the world that we can get in touch with the parents of 3,200 kids."

Due to a shift in wind patterns, the air quality was generally moderate in Stanislaus County on Friday before the kickoff of high school football games. But the smoke cast a brown haze over Fresno and other communities in the central and southern areas of the San Joaquin Valley.

Merced schools called off outdoor athletic events through the weekend.

"It's prudent to protect the health of our student athletes," said Robert Fore, Merced Union High School superintendent. "That's our top priority."

Merced County teams scheduled for away games in areas deemed safe by the district were allowed to compete. Merced High played a football game in Madera, and Atwater, instead of hosting Nevada Union as scheduled, traveled to Grass Valley.

Patterson High School's football game Friday night in Reedley, near Fresno, was nearly canceled because of the smoke. Instead, the teams decided to start play 90 minutes later than originally scheduled, said Dave Klein, athletic director for Patterson High School.

"They claim that when the sun goes down, the air quality gets better," Klein said.

No games involving the six public high schools in Modesto were canceled, according to Marlin Sumpter, director of child welfare and attendance.

Sumpter said Modesto City Schools administrators based their decision on periodic checks of pollution levels through the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Web site. Those reports showed the air quality in the county ranged from moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as people with asthma.

Oakdale followed through with its game against Turlock High School. Principal Rick Jones said Oakdale had an orange alert, which applies to those who are especially sensitive to poor air quality.

"We have to look at it as we get closer to the event because we wouldn't want to cancel something when it's not really an issue," Jones said.

Waterford High School Principal Don Davis said Friday the smoky air seemed to have no effect on athletes.

"We think, with heightened awareness, it won't be an issue," Davis said. "We have been practicing all week, and haven't had any problems."

In Fresno County, school officials pushed back the starting times of junior varsity and varsity football games.

Officials with the eight-county San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said they were duty-bound to issue the warnings for the entire region. Satellite images showed a blanket of smoke over the valley from the fire in Plumas County and the Lick fire in western Stanislaus and Santa Clara counties.

Young people competing in these conditions are inhaling particles that can get into the deep lung passages, said Michael Peterson, a physician and president of the California Thoracic Society. The irritants interfere with absorbing oxygen into the bloodstream and inflame the lung tissue. As the airways are narrowed, it can cause flare-ups in respiratory conditions such as asthma, he said.

Studies have also suggested that the smallest particles are absorbed in the bloodstream.

Jaime Holt, an air district spokeswoman, said the air district doesn't have authority to cancel games in these conditions.

"At the end of the day, the schools have the authority to make the call," she said. "We understand fully the difficult situation the schools are in with the beginning of football season. But our attitude is to error on the side of public health."

By Friday, a change in the winds caused the smoke from Plumas County to drift over Nevada. Winds out of the northwest drove the smoke from the Lick fire toward the Fresno area.

Stanislaus County got a break, but any change in the winds could inundate the county with smoke again, said Gary Arcemont, an air district meteorologist. Officials expect the smoky conditions will linger into early next week.

Bee staff writers Merrill Balassone, Christina Salerno, Eve Hightower, Will DeBoard and Noel Harris contributed to this report, as did the Merced Sun-Star.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.