View of park and water and cloudy weather
A smoky haze sets in above Cesar Chavez Park Wednesday morning. Credit: Tracey Taylor

Smoke from wildfires burning in Northern California and Oregon turned the air hazy on Tuesday, with unofficial PurpleAir sensors detecting AQIs above 150, a level unhealthy for the general population, at many locations in Berkeley and Oakland.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued “Spare the Air” alerts for the area through Thursday.

The city is recommending that people concerned about being outdoors head toward their nearest library or senior center, city spokesperson Matthai Chakko said Wednesday morning. Berkeley’s libraries and senior centers are not open 24 hours a day.

Berkeley has one official clean air center offering respite from smoky air, located at the Old City Hall, but it was closed Wednesday and Thursday.

If you smell smoke, the BAAQMD recommends residents — especially children, elderly persons, and those with respiratory illnesses — avoid exposure by staying indoors, closing windows and doors, and setting their air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate (if they can’t avoid driving). 

The old Berkeley City Hall building serves as an emergency shelter for the homeless and the city’s official clean air center. Aug. 31, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Chakko told Berkeleyside in 2022 that the city will “start considering” activating the clean air center if temperatures reach 90 degrees or when there is a sustained unhealthy air quality index of more than 150. 

“Because unhoused community members are directly exposed to weather and air quality challenges, we use pretty low thresholds to monitor the situation and start considering activation of additional services targeted to them,” he said at the time, noting that the city has generally seen little to no turnout when the city has activated the centers. Because they are targeted at people without housing, the city primarily does outreach through homeless service providers.

UC Berkeley and the city in June 2022 opened the Sacred Rest daytime drop-in shelter with Village of Love on Haste Street in Southside Berkeley. It’s outdoors, so it won’t be able to provide weather respite, but there are resources like food and water available at the location.

A man in a mask stops to photograph the orange sky at Sproul Plaza at 9:09 a.m. September 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

In September 2020, Berkeley and the surrounding region experienced the infamous “orange sky day” amid a disastrous fire season in California, which burned 4% of the state’s entirety and was crowned by the million-acre August Complex fire.

Though there haven’t been any large conflagrations in the immediate Bay Area in recent years, this past Sunday marked the 100-year anniversary of the 1927 fire that left 4,000 homeless in Berkeley, and the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm is still on the minds of many Berkeley residents who lived through it.

To stay up to date on hazardous weather conditions, subscribe to emergency notifications from Alameda County.

The county also has services in addition to the city’s emergency shelter and daytime drop-in locations (which are separate from the coordinated entry process for homeless residents who are seeking shelter). A list of “environmental impact centers” is available on the county’s website, and a list of Oakland cooling centers is available on The Oaklandside.

This story was updated on Thursday, Sept. 21, to note that the city’s clean air center was closed Wednesday and Thursday.

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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...