Kristen Ortlinghaus has a question she can’t seem to get answered about the air quality in her Coffey Park neighborhood.
She wants to know if she and her four children are being exposed to dangerous toxins by living just a few doors down from the wasteland left behind by the most destructive wildfire in California history.
“I don’t know what’s in the air,” Ortlinghaus said, who likened the smell in her neighborhood after a recent rain to being punched in the face. “Should we be freaking out and running for our lives?”
When she first asked that question at the Local Assistance Center in downtown Santa Rosa, Ortlinghaus “got the major runaround” from representatives of the state Office of Emergency Services and Sonoma County Health Department.
“They all looked at each other and said, ‘It’s not us. We have no idea,’” Ortlinghaus recalled.
They eventually suggested she call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for removing household toxics before major cleanup operations begin. She got no answers there either, she said.
“So I don’t let my kids play outside because honestly I don’t have enough data to know if it’s safe,” Ortlinghaus said.
Since then, thanks to persistence, access to data from new air quality monitors around the city, and staying connected with other concerned neighbors, Ortlinghaus says she’s feeling a little better about the flow of information.
But with major debris removal operations getting underway, she feels it is more important than ever that public officials be transparent about air quality data so residents near burned-out areas can make up their own minds about the health risks they face.
“The information is just really not being shared in any reasonable way to make decisions on,” she said.
Although the air has cleared since the North Bay fires filled the skies with smoke, creating the dirtiest air ever recorded in the region, concerns remain about the health effects of the toxic ash left behind by the 7,000 structures incinerated by the Tubbs and Nuns fires.
Fears about the potential dangers to human health caused the county to declare a public health emergency in the aftermath of the fires, which killed 23 people. But determining the health risks for people who live near incinerated home sites is tricky business, in part because good data is hard to come by.
“It’s a hazard, but quantifying it is really tough,” said Karen Holbrook, deputy health officer at the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.
Part of the problem is that responsibility for gathering air quality data is split among the various federal, state and local agencies involved in the fire response and cleanup effort.
For example, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District monitors air quality in the southern half of Sonoma County, but it does so from a single monitor in Sebastopol, which was not directly affected by the fires.
The California Air Resources Board placed seven additional monitors in Sonoma County shortly after the fires, and last week installed four others at area schools: Schaefer Elementary, Hidden Valley Elementary, Rincon Valley Middle School, and a location on Yulupa Avenue near Matanzas Elementary.
Those monitors have been testing for fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. Such fine particles are a concern for public health because they can lodge deep in the lung tissues.