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Wildfire smoke is up to 10 times more harmful to breathe than other air pollution

New study finds wildfire smoke impacts respiratory health more than fine particles from other sources

REDWOOD CITY, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Smoke from wildfires burning in Northern California filter the sun light in Redwood City, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
REDWOOD CITY, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Smoke from wildfires burning in Northern California filter the sun light in Redwood City, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Vallejo Times-Herald, by Paul Rogers, March 6, 2021

Choking smoke from record wildfires blanketed Northern California last summer and fall. It turned Bay Area skies an otherworldly orange, raising health concerns over a hazard that is increasing as temperatures continue to climb and poorly managed forests burn out of control each year across the West.

With this winter being extraordinarily dry, the chances of another big wildfire year are high. But the flames may not pose the biggest danger to the most people: A new study published Friday found that tiny particles of soot from wildfires, which millions of Californians are breathing in, are up to 10 times as harmful to human respiratory health as particulate pollution from other sources, such as car exhaust, factories or power plants.

“We’ve been really successful in reducing air pollution across the country by improving standards for automobiles, trucks and power plants,” said Tom Corringham, a research economist who studies climate and atmospheric science at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC-San Diego. “The trend has been a decrease in air pollution. But these wildfires are getting worse.”

Corringham and his fellow researchers studied the number of people admitted to hospitals with respiratory problems daily from 1999 to 2012 in Southern California. They compared it to data from fires, Santa Ana winds and smoke plumes from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

They found that when air pollution of tiny particles called PM 2.5 — for particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller, so small that 30 of them can line up along the width of a human hair — increased modestly, the number of people admitted to hospitals for respiratory ailments such as asthma increased by 1% on average. But when PM 2.5 levels from wildfire smoke went up by the same amount, or 10 micrograms per cubic meter, there was a 10% increase in those hospital admissions.

The tiny particles can penetrate deep into people’s lungs, enter the bloodstream and increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other serious health issues.

Last year, 4.2 million acres — an area 13 times the size of the city of Los Angeles — burned in California, the most in modern times. Fires from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Southern Sierra sent enormous plumes of smoke over the state’s largest cities and as far away as the East Coast. On Sept. 9, smoke mixed with the marine layer, turning Bay Area skies an apocalyptic orange.

OAKLAND, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Orange sky glows above the Fox Theater on Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The unusual orange and red-hued skies were a result of smoke from the Northern California wildfires. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District called 30 “Spare the Air” days in a row from August 18 to September 16. Soot levels nearly as bad blanketed the Bay Area during the Camp Fire in 2018 and Wine Country fires in 2017. In the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, air quality was even worse last year, reaching 10 to 15 times the federal health standard.

A study by Stanford researchers concluded that the fires last fall caused 1,200 excess deaths and 4,800 extra emergency room visits in California, mostly among people 65 and older with pre-existing conditions such as respiratory problems, diabetes and heart disease.

More is on the way. Wildfire risk is expected to be high this summer due to the unusually dry winter. Last fall, state and federal officials signed an agreement to double the rate of thinning forests that have grown unnaturally thick due to generations of fire suppression. Gov. Gavin Newsom added $1 billion to California’s state budget this year for increased forest management, fuel breaks, fire inspections and fire crews.

But Corringham said that as the climate continues to warm and wildfires increase, government agencies must directly address the health risks of smoke, particularly to the elderly and low-income people. More “clean room” cooling centers, rebates for home air purifiers and better public education campaigns are key, he said.

Other health officials generally agreed.

Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board, said some types of particle pollution, such as diesel soot, can be more dangerous than wildfire smoke. But overall, he agreed with the Scripps researchers’ conclusions that wildfire smoke poses a growing threat to the state’s residents as the climate warms.

“There’s no question it’s a huge air quality problem that has major health impacts,” Balmes said.

“There was a ring of fire last year around the Bay Area,” he added. “We are going to have to spend billions of dollars to maintain our forests better. It is going to take years. It can’t be done overnight.”

Scientists don’t know precisely why wildfire smoke is more harmful than most other particulate pollution. One theory is that when buildings burn, everything toxic in them, from heavy metals to plastics to pesticides, is sent airborne in smoke. Another theory is that the carbon nature of the particles causes more inflammation and stress on the lungs than other types of pollution.

“They are saying that wildfire smoke is more toxic. And that’s probably true,” said Dr. Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. “Usually direct deaths from wildfires are smaller than the effects from the smoke.”

BONNY DOON, CA – AUGUST 20: As the CZU August Lightning Complex fire burns houses near by, a Santa Cruz County Central Fire Protection District firefighter works in a residential neighborhood near Empire Grade to protect the remaining homes in Bonny Doon, Calif., in the early morning of Aug. 20, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Answers – and Questions – about California’s easing of COVID restrictions

By Roger Straw, March 5, 2021
Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

I’m fascinated by yesterday’s mysterious news reports that some California Counties will move from COVID purple tier to red tier more quickly and easily, based somehow on the number of vaccinations administered.

Today’s article (below) in the Vallejo Times-Herald answers some of the mystery, but leaves at least one huge question mark for those of us who live in Solano County.

The State’s new standards include two changes.  In summary:

    • a general loosening of the 2-week average “adjusted case count” – from 7 cases per 100,000 residents to an easier to reach 10 cases per 100,000.  This standard will be triggered only when…
    • …only when the State reaches its goal – likely next week – of distributing 2 million vaccine doses to residents of census tracts that rank in the bottom 25% of a health equity metric known as the California Healthy Places Index .  This includes 400 California zip codes.

The Times-Herald story names Bay Area locations included in the 400 zip codes without mentioning any in Solano County.  My hunch is that there ARE zips in Solano, but the South Bay author didn’t think to include anything in the North Bay.

AND… then the article goes on to say, “The looser standards probably won’t immediately affect Alameda, Santa Cruz and Solano counties, which already are on pace to enter the red tier next week.”

How, exactly, Solano County is already on pace to enter the red tier is not explained here.  Nor is it explained by my own calculations of Solano’s daily case rate over the past 2 weeks.  From yesterday’s BenIndy update:

Before dropping to a lower tier, the State requires a county to  maintain a positive test rate at or below 8% AND a case rate at or below 31 new cases per day for two consecutive weeks.  Solano’s positive rate meets that 2-week standard, at 7.2% as of today, but our new case rate, by my calculation, was at 40.9 per day over the last two weeks.

So the solution to the mystery has to do with my too simple calculation of average daily case rate, based on the daily Solano COVID-19 Dashboard reports.  The State relies on an “adjusted case rate” based on new cases PER 100,000 residents.  So if 449,432 of us (2020 population used by Solano County) are averaging 42 cases per day, that would mean only 9.3 cases are being reported per 100,000 of us.  It would be really nice if the County would add that calculation to its daily Dashboard update.  (Maybe it’s shown somewhere on COVID.CA.GOV? …UPDATE: Yes, I found it on COVID.CA.GOV, and embedded it here on BenIndy – see COVID-19 CASES PER 100,000 BY CA COUNTYSolano is shown at 8.2 cases per 100,000 as of March 2.)

Mystery solved?  Well, not if we are still under the OLD state standard of 7 cases per 100,000, which is only scheduled to lift next week, and then only if 400 zips are vaccinated at a good clip.  Not sure how the author below has us moving to red tier next week regardless of the new standards.

Here’s the Times-Herald story with all the details:

How California’s new COVID vaccine strategy could let the Bay Area reopen sooner

Vallejo Times-Herald, By Nico Savidge, March 4, 2021
REDWOOD CITY, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Anthony Garcia returns to indoor workouts for the first time in months at 24 Hour Fitness in Redwood City, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, after San Mateo County moved into the red tier. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
REDWOOD CITY, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Anthony Garcia returns to indoor workouts for the first time in months at 24 Hour Fitness in Redwood City, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, after San Mateo County moved into the red tier. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Counties across California likely will be allowed to ease restrictions on businesses and activities more quickly in the coming weeks as part of an accelerated reopening strategy state officials announced in tandem with a new policy targeting vaccine supplies to hard-hit communities.

In the Bay Area, the change could mean Contra Costa County will join Alameda, Santa Cruz and Solano counties in leaving the most-restrictive stage of the state’s coronavirus regulations as soon as next week.

And other Bay Area counties that have already graduated out of the “purple” tier, as the tightest limits are known, could in the near future have a quicker path to adopting even less-restrictive rules.

State officials late Wednesday announced a new strategy of reserving 40% of COVID-19 vaccine doses for less-wealthy neighborhoods that have borne a disproportionate share of coronavirus cases and deaths.

As those shots are delivered, they plan to relax standards for moving through the color-coded system that regulates activities such as indoor dining, youth sports and the size of gatherings in each of California’s 58 counties — though they stressed that the state will still have some of the tightest COVID-19 restrictions in the country.

“As we achieve higher levels of vaccine in our hardest-hit communities, we feel more confident that more activities can occur,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said on a briefing call with reporters Thursday. But, he added, “We will keep our foot on the brake, not on the gas.”

Dr. Arthur Reingold, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC Berkeley, said the strategy is “probably fair and reasonable.”

“But I would also say we have to wait and see how things go,” Reingold added.

The new standards would allow counties to move out of the purple tier and into the less-restrictive red tier — which allows for indoor activities at restaurants, gyms and other establishments — if they record an adjusted case rate of less than 10 cases per 100,000 residents per day for two straight weeks. The current threshold is 7 cases; state data showed Contra Costa County had a case rate of 9.5 this week.

The state will adopt the more generous standard once it has distributed 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to residents of census tracts that rank in the bottom quarter of a health equity metric known as the California Healthy Places Index. The index grades census tracts based on income, education levels, health care access and other factors.

About 8 million people statewide live in the census tracts, which are spread across about 400 ZIP codes and include much of East San Jose, East and West Oakland and parts of Richmond, Gilroy, Antioch and Pittsburg. They also include wide swaths of the Central Valley and less-wealthy areas in Southern California.

As of Thursday, Ghaly said the state already has distributed about 1.6 million doses and estimated it will hit the 2 million mark “sometime in the next week or two.”

If that happens on Tuesday or later, and Contra Costa County’s case rate remains below 10, the county would advance into the red tier automatically. Without the new rules, the county would have to get its case rate below 7 for two straight weeks to move forward. A spokesman said the county is reviewing the new criteria.

The strategy likely will have a far bigger impact in Southern California and the Central Valley, where the tightest limits remain in effect for nearly every county.

The looser standards probably won’t immediately affect Alameda, Santa Cruz and Solano counties, which already are on pace to enter the red tier next week. Same with Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Marin counties, which have all entered that stage over the past two weeks.

But the new rules could affect those counties in the near future: Once the state distributes another 2 million doses to the residents of those poorer, at-risk communities, for a total of 4 million, Ghaly said officials would further loosen the guidelines for entering the orange and yellow stages, which allow many more activities.


Under the orange tier, small amusement parks can reopen, along with outdoor bars, breweries and wineries that don’t provide food service, and indoor “family entertainment centers” such as bowling alleys.

Ghaly did not say precisely how the criteria for those two tiers would change or how long it could take for the state to distribute the additional 2 million doses. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that California expects to receive a total of about 1.6 million doses next week, though some is earmarked for teachers and school staff. Supplies are expected to increase over the coming weeks and months.

The move to ease California’s standards is a far cry from states such as Texas that have dropped restrictions altogether, said University of California, San Francisco, epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford.

“Prudence is their middle name in the governor’s office and the secretary’s office,” Rutherford said.

Solano reports 56 new COVID-19 cases overnight, no new deaths

By Roger Straw, Friday, February 26, 2021

COVID spread has slowed some, but it’s still spreading and dangerous in Solano County – stay safe!

Friday, February 26: 56 new Solano cases overnight, no new deaths.  Since February 2020: 30,024 cases, over 890 hospitalized, 164 deaths.Compare previous report, Thursday, February 25:Summary

[See Sources.  Daily archive of BenIndy Solano updates: Excel ARCHIVE
    • CASES – Solano County reported 56 new cases overnight, a total of 30,024 cases since the outbreak started.
    • DEATHS – the County reported no new deaths today .  A total of 164 Solano residents have died with COVID since the pandemic began.  42 COVID deaths were reported here in Solano County just since February 1.  COMPARE: In the month of January, Solano recorded a total of 24 coronavirus deaths.  Combining the two months to date, a total of 66 deaths, or 40% of Solano’s 164 COVID deaths occurred since January 1!  While many other COVID stats are improving, the recent surge in deaths is no doubt the final sad result of our holiday surge.  And we may see another surge in cases and deaths following the Super Bowl.
    • ACTIVE cases – Solano reported 37 fewer active cases today, a total of 298 active casesCompare: Solano’s average number of Active Cases during October was 284, average in November was 650, in December 1,658, in January 2,185 – and TODAY we are at 298.  Much better, but still, is the County equipped to contact trace all these infected persons?  My guess is we just sit back and wait for a voluntary 10 day quarantine to expire.  Who knows?  To my knowledge, Solano has offered no reports on contact tracing.
    • HOSPITALIZATIONS – (See expanding ICU capacity and ventilator availability below.)  Today, Solano reported 8 fewer currently hospitalized cases, total of 37.  Among the age groups, the County reported no new hospitalizations today, a total of 892 hospitalized in all age groups since the pandemic began.  Accuracy of the County’s hospitalization numbers cannot be certain.  [For the numbers used in my manual calculation of total hospitalizations, see age group stats belowFor COVID19-CA.GOV numbers, see BenIndy page, COVID-19 Hospitalizations Daily Update for Solano County.]
    • ICU BEDS – In late January, Solano hospitals expanded their ICU capacity [see BenIndy, Jan. 25]  Even with the expanded ICU capacity, Solano County has fallen in and out of the YELLOW DANGER ZONE, and came in at 37% available today up from 29% yesterday. California’s COVID19-CA.GOV reports that Solano County had only 7 available ICU beds yesterday, February 24, (down from 13 the day before).  (For COVID19-CA.GOV info see BenIndy page, COVID-19 Hospitalizations Daily Update for Solano County, and for REGIONAL data see COVID-19 ICU Bed Availability by REGION.)
    • VENTILATORS available – Today Solano hospitals have 54% of ventilators available, down from 58% yesterday, and down substantially from last summer’s reports of 82-94% available.
Positive Test Rate: 5.6% – still no clarification as to Tuesday’s sudden drop by over half!

Solano County reported on Tuesday that our 7-day average positive test rate was cut by more than half overnight, down to 5.9% from 12.4% on Monday.  Today the County remained in the same range, falling from yesterday’s 5.7% to 5.6%.  It seems totally unlikely for a 7-day average to drop so precipitously overnight.  I’ll let you know if I get an explanation.  Currently, Solano has come in under the State’s purple/red tier threshold of 8%.  Even so, DON’T EXPECT A QUICK MOVE DOWN TO THE RED TIER: the State requires a county to meet criteria for the next less restrictive tier (in test rate measures AND case rate measures) for the prior two consecutive weeks in order to progress to the next tier.  The much lower and more stable California 7-day average test rate was at 2.7% today, down from 2.9% yesterday(Note that Solano County displays past weeks and months in a 7-day test positivity line graph which also shows daily results.  However, the chart does not display an accurate number of cases for the most recent days, as there is a lag time in receiving test results.  The 7-day curve therefore also lags behind due to unknown recent test results.) 

By Age Group
  • Youth 17 and under – 4 new cases overnight, total of 3,503 cases, representing 11.7% of the 30,024 total cases.  No new hospitalizations were reported today among this age group, total of 18 since the outbreak began.  Thankfully, no deaths have ever been reported in Solano County in this age groupBut cases among Solano youth rose steadily over the summer, from 5.6% of total cases on June 8 to 11% on August 31 and has remained at over 11% since September 30.  Youth are 22% of Solano’s general population, so this 11% may seem low.  The significance is this: youth are SERIOUSLY NOT IMMUNE (!) – in fact at least 18 of our youth have been hospitalized since the outbreak began.
  • Persons 18-49 years of age – 36 new cases overnight, total of 16,565 cases. This age group is 41% of the population in Solano, but represents 55.2% of the total cases, by far the highest percentage of all age groups.  The County reported no new hospitalizations among persons in this age group today.  A total of 246 are reported to have been hospitalized since the outbreak began.  Solano recorded no new deaths in this young group today, total of 10 deaths.  Some in this group are surely at high risk, as many are providing essential services among us, and some may be ignoring public health orders.  I expect this group is a major factor in the spread of the virus.
  • Persons 50-64 years of age – 11 new cases overnight, total of 6,272 cases.  This age group represents 20.9% of the 30,024 total cases.  The County reported no new hospitalizations among persons in this age group today, a total of 240 reported to have been hospitalized since the outbreak began.  No new deaths were reported in this age group today, a total of 26 deaths.
  • Persons 65 years or older – only 5 new cases overnight, total of 3,673, representing 12.2% of Solano’s 30,024 total cases.  The County reported no new hospitalizations among persons in this age group today, a total of 388 hospitalized since the outbreak began.  No new deaths were  reported in this age group today.  A total of 128 of our elders have died of COVID, accounting for 78% of Solano’s 164 total deaths.
City Data
  • Benicia added 3 new cases overnight, total of 851 cases since the outbreak began.
  • Dixon added 4 new cases overnight, total of 1,755 cases.
  • Fairfield added 19 new cases overnight, total of 8,167 cases.
  • Rio Vista added 3 new cases overnight, total of 323 cases.
  • Suisun City added 4 new cases overnight, total of 2,033 cases.
  • Vacaville added 11 new cases overnight, total of 7,897 cases.
  • Vallejo added 12 new cases overnight, total of 8,910 cases.
  • Unincorporated areas remained steady today, total of 88 cases.
Race / Ethnicity

The County report on race / ethnicity includes case numbers, hospitalizations, deaths and Solano population statistics.  This information is discouragingly similar to national reports that indicate significantly worse outcomes among black and brown Americans.  Note that all of this data surely undercounts Latinx Americans, as there is a large group of “Multirace / Others” which likely is composed mostly of Latinx members of our communities.

  • Asian Americans are 14% of Solano’s population, and account for 12% of cases, 13% of hospitalizations, and 18% of deaths.
  • Black Americans are 14% of Solano’s population, and account for 11% of cases, but 17% of hospitalizations, and 19% of deaths.
  • Latinx Americans are 26% of Solano’s population, but account for 16% of cases, 21% of hospitalizations, and 12% of deaths.
  • Multi-race / Others are 7% of Solano’s population, but account for 33% of cases, 19% of hospitalizations, and 16% of deaths.
  • White Americans are 39% of the population in Solano County, but only account for 28% of cases, 31% of hospitalizations and 34% of deaths.


The County’s Coronavirus Dashboard is full of much more information, too extensive to cover here on a daily basis.  The Benicia Independent will continue to summarize daily and highlight significant portions.  For more, check out the Dashboard at

Source: Solano County Coronavirus Dashboard (posted on the County website late today).  ALSO see important daily updates from the state of California at COVID19.CA.GOV, embedded here on the BenIndy at Cases and Deaths AND Hospitalizations AND ICU Beds by REGION.


Email from Elizabeth Patterson, February 26, 2021

The Goal Setting Workshop is an annual opportunity for the City Council to discuss and set its priorities for the next fiscal year. The City Council will be joined by the City’s Executive Management Team, composed of the City Manager, City Attorney, department directors and selected division managers, in a process designed to review the current work plan of projects and initiatives, conduct a review of strategic priorities, conduct a strengths / weaknesses / opportunities / threats (SWOT) examination, and ultimately determine the areas of focus for the next fiscal year, 2021-22.

RECOMMENDATION: Engage with staff and Council colleagues in discussion about priorities, then provide staff direction with Council consensus of a list of high priority projects and initiatives, ranked in order of importance by the Council. The list will then be used as a work plan for Fiscal Year 2021-22.

P.S. There are three pages to the Updated Work Plan with brief explanation of status of implementation and funding. Click on the link above for the three pages. I’d like to note that the effort to get a climate action coordinator has taken five years. The results of NOT having the coordinator is telling in that we did not qualify for any of the Beacon Awards which we received on an annual basis until the majority of the council did not renew the then existing contract. As predicted, without the dedicated climate coordinator, there simply is not enough staff time to do what is necessary. The funding for a part-time coordinator was approved last year for implementation in 2020. The summary Work Plan indicates that the coordinator will be hired soon.

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