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Thomas Fire’s toxic smoke creates worst-ever air quality in Santa Barbara County

Health officials have handed out more than 200,000 free N-95 face masks over the past week to guard against the toxic cloud of smoke in the air thrown up by the raging Thomas Fire, which is burning in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Still, some people insist on folding a scarf, wearing a dust or surgical mask or even holding their hand over the mouths. Those methods, however, are useless for the most part.

“Dust masks and surgical masks aren’t effective at filtering out the particles,” said Lyz Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. “Holding scarves over one’s face isn’t effective either. N-95 masks are the way to go. They offer some protection if fitted properly.”

Click here to check air quality conditionsin Santa Barbara County.

The smoke conditions appear to be the worst in Santa Barbara County history, with hazardous, very unhealthy, and unhealthy conditions recorded in Santa Barbara since Wednesday, with hazardous being the most severe level.

“Last week, we saw hazardous fine particle (PM 2.5) conditions recorded at our Santa Barbara station,” Hoffman said. “We haven’t seen a level nearly that high since our agency has been measuring PM 2.5 (in 1999).

“Before last week, the highest PM 2.5 reading had occurred at our Santa Maria station in 2001, when the conditions reached the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” level, meaning unhealthy for children, seniors, and people with heart and lung conditions.”

Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean said there’s been an average of 20 to 50 visits per day between the clinics and the hospitals within Santa Barbara County related to the bad air quality conditions.

“We knew at the start of this that we would see a higher utilization in the clinics and the emergency rooms, and so that puts an added pressure on the healthcare system,” Dean said.

She had no demographic breakdown of the patients coming in with breathing problems, but said it was likely people who are elderly and/or have asthma, COPD or heart conditions.

“Also, sometimes people who have underlying anxiety around these situations. It can really exacerbate something that’s already there,” Dean said.

The Thomas Fire and its devastating impact on the region have disrupted just about every local activity.

Flames have forced the evacuations of thousands of people, and the unhealthy air quality for more than five days in a row has caused schools, offices and businesses to close their doors all over the South Coast.

People all over Santa Barbara County are wearing the masks, and the ominous layer of smoke seems to be part of the new normal in Santa Barbara.

The smoky air will be part of Santa Barbara County life for a while, and the ash will likely linger long past when the Thomas Fire is eventually contained.

“The larger ash particles get broken down into smaller particles over time, and smaller particles are more harmful to health,” Hoffman said. “Winds can also stir up these fine particles after wildfire and smoke conditions have ended.”

As of Tuesday morning, the Thomas Fire had charred more than 234,200 acres, making it the fifth largest wildfire in California history.

Unlike recent wildfires that have burned in or near the Santa Ynez Mountains close to the South Coast and Santa Ynez Valley, the smoke from the Thomas Fire hasn’t moved up or away from populated areas.

“In the recent past, we’ve seen some fires produce only moderate effects on our air quality because the smoke moves straight up and out toward the east,” Hoffman said.

As ash continues to fall from the growing Thomas Fire, the Air Pollution Control District warns people never to use leaf blowers to move the ash, because it will just stir up the fine particles.

No one with heart or lung conditions should handle ash cleanup, and everyone should avoid skin contact with ash.

Residents are advised to put off cleaning up ash while it’s still falling, but if someone needs to clean up ash they should use damp cloths and spray areas lightly with water. They should only use vacuums with HEPA filters, and sweep gently with a broom.

Health officials encourage everyone to get a free N-95 mask at the distribution locations, which will include Santa Maria, Lompoc, Buellton, Goleta, Santa Barbara and Carpinteria on Tuesday.

Click here for the current sites for free mask distributions and information about wearing them.

“The heavy ash is what we see, but it is the fine particulate matter that really hurts,” said Public Health spokeswoman Susan Klein-Rothschild.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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