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How does Cal Fire spot smoke from a new fire when the sky is already smoky?

Wildfire smoke creating poor air quality across Sacramento region
Wildfire smoke creating poor air quality across Sacramento region 02:34

COLUSA COUNTY — Smoke from the wildfires burning up north has found its way into the Sacramento Valley creating poor air quality. Much of the area is already under a red flag warning due to the low humidity, high wind and high temperatures.

Cal Fire LNU Chief Mike Marcucci said on Wednesday that they got double the number of calls overnight because of people thinking they smelled a fire. 

"At the end of the day, we are not going to discount somebody calling in that 'I see smoke,' " said Marcucci. "We are going to go." 

But how does Cal Fire spot smoke from a new fire when the sky is already smoky? Marcucci said they use their Alert California Cameras that uses artificial intelligence. 

"The camera is looking at different levels of it," he said. "It is looking far, close and it's looking for any kind of differentiation from that landscape." 

The human eye may not be able to detect it, but artificial intelligence using infrared technology can. 

"The cameras are equipped with infrared technology which can penetrate through the smoke to some extent," said Battalion Chief Robert Carvalho with Cal Fire communications. 

He said one of the big clues is dark or white columns in the sky from new sparks on the ground. 

If a fire breaks out, the smoky skies also impact the ability of Cal Fire to use air attack because of the visibility. 

"If it's unsafe, they will ground the resources," Carvalho said. "The pilots don't know where to drop the retardant or the water, and they want to make sure they are not dropping it on top of the firefighters on the ground." 

The poor air is causing school districts like Woodland Joint Unified to put out air alerts and make changes like switching P.E. indoors, creating indoor space for students with asthma and keeping room filters on. It has not canceled any sporting games or practices currently.

"If you are going to go outside, limit your time outside as much as possible," said Dr. Vanessa Walker, the chief medical executive at Sutter Roseville Medical Center.

Dr. Walker said that is because the small particles in the smoke can get into your airways and make it harder to breathe.

"These small particles can get into your nose, into your airways and actually they are so small they can get out into your bloodstream," Dr. Walker said.

Short-term effects include difficulty breathing. However, Dr. Walker said there is still not enough research to know for sure what the long-term effects are, but we can learn from places that regularly have poor air quality.

"You might find children born with low birth rates, higher pulmonary problems, moms go into early labor," Dr. Walker said. "Long-term effects can be cancer if you're exposed to high particulate matters — less likely in wildfires because it's a short period of time." 

Cal Fire said now is the time to take things easy indoors and prepare for a fire. Have a go-bag ready and an evacuation plan. 

"Today is not the day to set a PR in the running, said Marcucci. "Today is a good day to just take it easy." 

Cal Fire is positioned in spots like Colusa County, ready to battle the flames if a fire breaks out. 

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