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Multiple Bay Area School Districts Cancel Friday Classes Due To Air Quality

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The poor air quality across the Bay Area due to the heavy smoke from the Camp Fire has led school district officials in San Francisco, Alameda and elsewhere to cancel all classes and activities for Friday.

The San Francisco Unified School District made the announcement Thursday afternoon shortly after 2 p.m., saying "SFUSD schools, central offices and afterschool programs will be closed tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 16, due to ongoing concerns regarding air quality both inside and outside of schools and offices."

Students were already scheduled to be off class for all of next week for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The school district had already cancelled all outdoor sports practices for Thursday and postponed games late Thursday morning.

All public school districts in Contra Costa and and Marin County canceled Friday classes. Alameda Unified, Mount Diablo Unified, Oakland Unified, Berkeley Unified, Pleasanton Unified and San Ramon Valley Unified also announced the cancellation of Friday classes Thursday afternoon.

Schools in Santa Clara County, however, will be among those not closing Friday, county education officials said this afternoon.

"It is my goal to keep students in schools when possible, as schools provide a safe environment. Our goal is to ensure student safety," County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan said in a statement.

Schools that remain open are keeping students inside for activities that would otherwise be done outdoors.

The SFMTA also announced that Muni would be stopping all cable car service due to the poor air quality. Bus shuttles service would be provided to replace the cable cars on the Power, Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California lines for the rest of Thursday.

Transit officials later announced that bus shuttles would cover cable car routes on Friday as well and that the cancellation of school would have Muni service operating on a non-school weekday schedule.

Earlier Thursday, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced that officials were extending the Spare the Air Alert and Air Quality Advisory through next Tuesday due to the smoky, unhealthy air from the Camp Fire.

The extension of the Spare the Air Alert marks the 13th day in a row that the Bay Area will be under such an alert, a record since the BAAQMD began issuing the air quality warnings.

Meanwhile, the normal hustle and bustle of San Francisco State's campus had all but vanished Thursday morning as the thick unhealthy haze of smoky draped over the city from the Camp Fire forced an early Thanksgiving break.

Across the Bay Area, the story was much the same as classes were cancelled at all three Cal State East Bay campuses, UC Davis, San Jose State University, Mills College, Santa Clara, DeAnza College, Holy Names University, Canada College, College of San Mateo and Skyline College.

"While the fire is nearly 200 miles away from campus, the air quality in our region is impacted," SCU President Michael Engh wrote in an e-mail to campus. "The health and safety of our students is our highest priority and to that end, we are canceling classes today, November 15, beginning at 10:00 am and through the weekend."

While UC Berkeley was still holding classes, the school announced it had closed its Botanical Garden.

"Please be advised that the UC Botanical Garden will be closed today, Thursday, November 15th, due to poor air quality," the closure email read. "We regret any inconvenience this may cause you; however, for the health and safety of our volunteers, our staff, and our patrons, we think this is the right thing to do."

Some planned outdoor weekend events have also been cancelled as of Thursday. The Biofreeze Berkeley Half Marathon set to take place on Sunday, Nov. 18 has been called off, though organizers are looking into possibly rescheduling the race for next February or March.

The North Face 2018 Endurance Challenge Championships scheduled to take place in the Marin Headlands and San Francisco this weekend has also been scrapped.


Thursday morning, the air quality index in San Jose was hovering just below the 200 threshold used by many schools to cancel class.

Despite the poor air quality, San Jose City College decided to stay open.

The college's Facebook page was filled with sarcastic and angry comments over the decision.

"Yeah, I definitely think that it should be closed. It's a little bit like, 'Ugh! Why are they closed and why are we open?'" asked student Kevin Jauregui.

But as the morning wore on, San Jose City and Evergreen were two of the last holdouts in the bay area.

When asked if he felt pressure to shut down, acting President Jorge Escobar insisted they made the right decision at the right time.

"Yeah, lots of messages on social media, emails, text messages, phone calls," said Escobar. "Everybody's feeling the pressure and they feel compelled to close the campus."

Stanford researcher Mary Prunicki studies how pollution affects the immune system. She told KPIX certain genes involved in the immune system are affected when exposed to pollution.

"Those changes result in increases or decreases in proteins and in cells that allow your body to have a healthy immune system," said Prunicki. "It's scary. It's scary because on a molecular level, we know that changes are taking place."

And as for air pollution in general?

"They're starting to find that air pollution is associated with various types of diseases, like cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, and other types of diseases we hadn't realized we impacted by air pollution," Prunicki explained.

Prunicki said the air could contain traces of not only wood smoke, but plastics, solvents, and other chemicals that burned in paradise. However, there just isn't enough data on their effects from long-term exposure.

Camp Fire Smoke Collage
Views of the smoke from the Camp Fire from the KPIX studios in San Francisco. The above picture was taken on November 15, 2018, the picture on the bottom was taken on November 8, 2018, the day the fire broke out. (Tim Fang / CBS)

The smoky air turned Livermore into a setting from a gothic novel as residents experienced some of the worst air quality in the Bay Area.

"My lungs, my eyes -- it's been really difficult to breathe. So it's really been affecting me quite a bit," said Livermore business owner Gianni Schell.

"It builds up over the Altamont. There's no outlet and then it swirls around and it stays in Livermore," said Livermore resident Laurent Maccario.

Thursday morning's Air Quality Index map showed the city as being the only place in the Bay Area where breathing was considered a "very unhealthy" thing to do.

It wasn't healthy for business either. Sunrise Mountain Sports was deserted and manager Heather Figuers wore a mask as she worked inside.

"When I saw the Air Quality Index kind of max out I had a severe headache and it was just…I was really sluggish. And then I got a mask and I was like, Oh, that was probably why," said Figuers.

A group visiting from Arizona found the air foul, but not alarming.

"It's more of an annoyance, because we don't live here and we're leaving in a couple days. But I feel bad for you guys," said visitor Denise Snedeker.

Local Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty advertised a free mask giveaway from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., but was faced with a lot of frustrated constituents when all 1,400 masks were gone in less than 30 minutes.

"I'm disappointed that I couldn't give out more, but everybody's having a hard time finding these masks and -- quite frankly -- now we'll have a hard time finding them too," said Haggerty.

Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who studies air pollution, said that anyone with prolonged exposure should be wearing a N95 surgical mask.

"Just going from your house to your car, you may not need the N95," he told KPIX 5. "But if you're going to be out in the outdoors for more than a few minutes, I would wear an N95 mask."

Dr. Balmes said the smoky air filled with particulate matter is coming with the cold and flu season to send people to their doctors offices and emergency rooms.

For most healthy people, exposure to wildfire smoke is just an annoyance, causing burning eyes, scratchy throats or chest discomfort that all disappear when the smoke clears.

But doctors, scientists and public health officials are concerned that the changing face of wildfires will pose a much broader health hazard,

"Wildfire season used to be June to late September. Now it seems to be happening all year round. We need to be adapting to that," Dr. Wayne Cascio, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cardiologist, said this week.

In an overview published earlier this year, Cascio wrote that the increasing frequency of large wildland fires, urban expansion into wooded areas and an aging population are all increasing the number of people at risk for health problems from fires.

Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals as urban air pollution, along with tiny particles of vapor and soot 30 times thinner than a human hair. These can infiltrate the bloodstream, potentially causing inflammation and blood vessel damage even in healthy people, research on urban air pollution has shown. Studies have linked heart attacks and cancer with long-term exposure to air pollution.

Whether exposure to wildfire smoke carries the same risks is uncertain, and determining harm from smog versus wildfire smoke can be tricky, especially with wind-swept California wildfires spreading thick smoke hundreds of miles away into smoggy big cities.

"That is the big question," said Dr. Balmes. "Very little is known about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because it's hard to study populations years after a wildfire."

© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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