Wildfire smoke may not leave Berkeley for another week — maybe longer

Experts say hazy skies and poor air quality will continue if slow winds are unable to disperse the smoke and ash coming from dozens of wildfires.

smoke and ash in the sky from wildfires give the International House — a large white building — a grey tint with a red sun on Bancroft Way
Hazy skies caused by smoke over International House on Sept. 11, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley and the Bay Area have been covered in dense smoke for about a week now, and there may be another week of hazy skies and poor air quality ahead if slow winds are unable to disperse the ash coming from wildfires across the West Coast.

The optimistic prediction from National Weather Service meteorologists last week was that winds could clear out smoke over the weekend, but today they said the storm system is stalled out in the Pacific Ocean. Air quality in Berkeley has been fluctuating in the unhealthy and very unhealthy ranges, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has extended its “Spare the Air” alert to a historic 30 days through Wednesday, Sept. 16.

To make matters worse, the typically fresh ocean air slowly making its way into the Bay Area is mixed up with smoke from massive wildfires in Oregon that have burned over 1 million acres across the state, killed 10 people and forced more than 40,000 people to evacuate. This smoke is reaching hundreds of miles into the ocean, according to Aaron Richardson, spokesman for BAAQMD.

“The region is just kind of suffused with smoke with all these fires,” Richardson said, explaining that a stronger weather system may blow in marine air on Thursday and Friday, offering a brief respite. “The ‘X-factor’ there is, are we just trading smoke for smoke?” he said.


The August Complex fire in Northern California — which was already the largest in state history, and doubled in size to nearly 750,000 acres over the weekend — was not the main source of Bay Area’s smoke on Monday due to north winds which are carrying particles from the nearly-contained SCU Lightning Complex fire, Creek Fire in Fresno County and SQF complex fire in Tulare County. August Complex could resume pushing smoke into the region after the brief pause at the end of this week, according to Cindy Palmer, meteorologist at the NWS.

Forecasting the weather is made challenging in current conditions as smoke interferes with several of the nearly 30 models the NWS uses to predict weather.

Skies looked clearer in Berkeley as of Monday afternoon and the sun was trying to push through the smog, putting temperatures in the high 60s, but Palmer said there’s still an abundant layer of smoke in the air. The air quality index (AQI) measured at Aquatic Park at noon by BAAQMA was 185 PM2.5, putting it in the red “unhealthy” range. It may just be more dispersed than last week, when Berkeley residents woke up to unsettling, orange skies.

With unhealthy air permeating the Bay Area, it can be confusing to follow guidelines offered in air quality readings to “avoid” and “limit” activity. Richardson said the best option is to stay inside when air quality reaches “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” levels, and take extra precautions if you have respiratory or heart issues.

This may not be possible for all populations, especially those who are unsheltered. Berkeley set up an emergency shelter at Old City Hall for a few hours on Friday, Sept. 11, but there hasn’t been an update on availability this week.

Poor air quality can trigger asthma, cause lingering coughs and discomfort even for healthy people in the short term, and lead to higher mortality rates over the course of several years, according to federal standards, but it’s unclear how it affects populations over the course of a month, or two months. Richardson called this an “intermediate zone.”

“I think that’s going to be kind of a new territory for study, since this wildfire season may be here to stay in California because of climate change,” Richardson said.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: (510) 585-8315.