California wildfires: 23 dead, hundreds missing as concern for air quality grows

The sun descends through a layer of smoke from Northern California wildfires, leaving a picturesque display of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI

Oct. 12 (UPI) — Officials say air quality in Northern California’s Bay Area is in the range regarded as unhealthy and is expected to deteriorate in coming days due to multiple deadly wildfires.

Winds of over 50 mph have spread 22 distinct wildfires in Northern California’s wine country since Sunday. They also spread smoke and airborne particulate matter, leading to harmful breathing conditions.

San Francisco hospitals are already receiving patients in their emergency rooms complaining of respiratory issues likely related to the smoke, said Rachael Kagan, of the San Francisco Department of Health.

“We’re going to see a really strong settling of the smoke in the Bay Area on Friday and Saturday,” said National Weather Service’s Bay Area office meteorologist Brian Garcia. “Not to mince words. It’s going to be really bad.”

The wildfires have already caused substantial damage in Napa and Sonoma Counties — including nearly two dozen people dead and more than 3,500 structures destroyed. Hundreds of residents are also still missing, officials said.

“We’re seeing the worst air quality ever recorded in many parts of the Bay Area. The entire Bay Area population is likely being affected by the smoke,” Tom Flannigan, of the Bay Area Quality Air Management District, said. “Up in the Napa area and even up in San Rafael, basically all of the North Bay, is experiencing the highest readings we’ve ever observed.”

The five highest readings on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index in its 5 a.m. update Thursday were in the Bay Area. Napa leads the list with a reading of 244, regarded as very unhealthy. Truckee, Salinas, Santa Cruz and Atascadero, all affected by the wildfires, had readings between 151 and 158, regarded as unhealthy.

Schools across the Bay area are closed and over 80 flights from San Francisco International Airport were canceled on Wednesday due to smoky conditions. Artifacts from the historic Spanish Mission in Sonoma have been removed for safekeeping.

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