The view from Lisa Handwerker’s balcony Tuesday, Aug. 18, as wildfires contributed to visually stunning skies. Photo: Lisa Handwerker

Editor’s note: Berkeleyside is resharing this Aug. 19 story due to ongoing poor air quality.

After witnessing a stunning sunset Tuesday night, many Berkeleyans woke up Wednesday to the smell of smoke in the air. Some found ash in their yards and coating their cars.

Wildfire season is upon us.

At 10 a.m. the air quality index (AQI), measured at the Air Now monitor at Aquatic Park, was 90 PM2.5, which is classified as “moderate” as it’s in the 50-100 range. But it was on the rise: at 9 a.m. the measurement was 82 PM2.5. Once it tips over 101 PM2.5, the air is deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The AQI measures particulate matter pollution (PM2.5).

The city of Berkeley issued guidelines this morning on how to check current local air quality conditions, as well as tips to protect one’s health when air quality is poor (see below). Not all air quality measurements will be the same. The San Francisco Chronicle explains why it’s so confusing. Berkeleyside relies on the AQI measurements taken at Aquatic Park every hour by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Unfortunately, just as scientists are reporting that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is reduced when outdoors, the health advice around air quality is to stay indoors.

A Spare the Air alert has been issued through Wednesday, banning wood burning, and an air quality advisory through Thursday. (Update: Around 2 p.m., the Spare the Air advisory was extended through Sunday.)

Fires are currently being tackled and evacuations are under way in Napa, including the Hennessey Fire near St. Helena, the LNU Lightning Complex fires that are raging in multiple counties and the CZU August Lightning Complex fires in Santa Cruz county. The San Francisco Chronicle has a free-to-access California Fire Map that is tracking wildfires across San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma, Northern California, Central California and Southern California.

“The air quality will be very poor for the foreseeable future given rapid spread of fires and stagnant air mass,” the Bay Area arm of the National Weather Service tweeted on Wednesday morning around 7:40 a.m.

This is not the first time in recent history Berkeley has felt the impact of wildfires elsewhere. The past three years have forced residents to take measures to avoid inhaling air pollutants caused by, in 2017 the wine country fires, in 2018 the deadly Camp Fire, and in 2019 the Kincade Fire. In the worst cases, when AQI was in the “unhealthy” (151-200) and “very unhealthy” (201-300) ranges, schools, colleges and farmers markets closed.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...