Smoke will be on and off this week
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Update 4PM Tuesday
The air quality index for Reno-Sparks is currently in the moderate range which only affects unusually sensitive people, but Washoe County officials say smoke from wildfires in California continues to affect the air quality in the Truckee Meadows.
Earlier this afternoon, the index reading was categorized as unhealthy for sensitive populations, which is also the forecasted reading for Wednesday.
Much of the smoke is coming from the Rim Fire burning near Yosemite National Park. That blaze has consumed more than 235,000 acres, and is now 75% contained.
Fire officials do not expect full containment until September 20.
Update 10AM Tuesday
Smoke will be on and off today and tomorrow in Reno/Carson/Tahoe.
Jim Wallman of the National Weather Service says smoke will fluctuate based on the activity of the Rim Fire in Yosemite. He says there's a chance that showers will clear up some of the smoke that accumulates in the Truckee Meadows.
At the end of this week, Wallman says a change in winds could push the smoke west toward Hawthorne, which would clear up the Truckee Meadows.
AIR QUALITY FEATURE:
Perched up high in his office north of Reno, Alan Gertler looks out his window at the ominous haze obscuring even the brightest buildings on Virginia Street. At first glance, it could be nothing more than a foggy day.
"This really is an odd confluence of events."
Gertler is the Vice President of research at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and studies air quality. He says the consistent southerly winds and the massive Rim Fire in Yosemite have conspired to bring about one of the worst air quality events since he moved here 35 years ago. The smog is not as bad as Beijing or Cairo, for example, because there aren't metals and other chemicals being burned. But Gertler says the situation presents its own challenges.
"These very small particles that have been suspended in the air, they don't deposit rapidly, they can travel long distances, the wind is blowing them toward our direction, so it's impacting our local environment."
Nevada is prone to wildfire smoke. The topography holds the smoke down toward the ground level at which we breathe. That's why frequent air quality index warnings should be taken so seriously. Earlier this week, Washoe County reached its peak level of 209-considered unhealthy for everyone. The highest ever recorded is 211.
Bernadette Longo works at the Orvis School of Nursing at the University of Nevada's Medical School and is also the state's Clean Air Ambassador for the American Nurses Association. She says when air quality gets this bad, other health effects emerge.
"When we're breathing in these fine, small particles, the theory is that they are getting absorbed into the body and into our blood, and it makes our blood thicker. This puts more of a strain on our hearts and increases blood pressure."
Longo says studies show an increase in cardiac incidents, like heart attacks. She says children are especially at risk for respiratory issues, in part, because they tend to breathe through their mouths, not their noses, which would filter out much of the pollution.
"When parents are watching their children and they're beginning to cough, that's telling you their system is being overworked. And the same goes for us. That's a symptom that our bodies are nearing the end of our defenses."
She recommends people wear N95 medical masks, if possible. When smoke does periodically clear up, she says people should air out buildings and homes to get rid of the particles that leaked in.
The best defense for residents and visitors alike, though, is to just stay inside. But as people play it safe, some businesses are losing out on late summer dollars.
"It did cause some of our visitors to cancel their plans."
Bee Gorman is the head of the South Tahoe Chamber. She says last weekend wasn't a complete wash, but numbers were down for many hotels and businesses compared to previous weekends. About 70 percent of South Tahoe's economy is based on tourism.
"So it impacts your retailers both just from a decreased number of visitors being here and from visitors who are here not being quite as apt to spend time wandering outside as they would have under better conditions."
Gorman says hotels have been more flexible with cancellations and she's hopeful conditions will improve in time for the holiday weekend.
"Actually it doesn't look like it's going to be much different."
Mark Faucette is with the National Weather Service in Reno. He says they can't predict how the fire will behave, but as long as its keeps putting up smoke, Western Nevada and the Sierra will be stuck in the thick of it.
"There is a possibility as we get into the early part of next week around Monday that our winds will be a little stronger and a little more from the west southwest."
If that happens, it's bad news for places like Yerington or Fallon. However, the Truckee Meadows could get some blue skies on Labor Day.