How fires, dry conditions are drastically increasing air pollution across California

Smoke and dust are blanketing central California. Air pollution is a chronic problem in the San Joaquin Valley but it is now reaching levels unlike any previously seen. With no measurable rainfall in weeks, and little chance of rain in the forecast, there is no end in sight. Community reporter Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado joins Judy Woodruff from Fresno with the latest updates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Smoke and dust are blanketing Central California. Air pollution is a chronic problem in the San Joaquin Valley, but it is now reaching levels unlike any previously seen.

    With no measurable rainfall in weeks and little chance of rain in the forecast, there is no end in sight.

    I am joined now by "PBS NewsHour" community reporter Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, who is in Fresno.

    Cresencio, thank you so much for talking with us about this.

    Tell us what it was like in the San Joaquin Valley this week when this dust storm happened.

  • Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado:

    Well, Judy, this was on Monday.

    And we knew that there was a possibility of high winds on Monday because the National Weather Service had put out an advisory saying that there was going to be high winds, and they raised the fire threat to critical in the entire Central Valley.

    So what we saw on Monday was winds of up to 40 miles per hour in some parts. Trees were toppled. Electricity was cut off in many communities. And there was grass fires that were started in some places that firefighters quickly extinguished.

    But the situation also led to visibility of up to one mile in some places, and the local National Weather Service said some places even had zero visibility because of the heavy dust that was blown because of a storm system that was dry and that came from the Pacific Northwest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how did this affect the lives of people who live there?

  • Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado:

    Well, this — the air quality has been a challenge for quite some time now, because the — there have been some wildfires that have also been sending smoke into the valley.

    So, we had had a few days of clean air, blue skies. But this dust storm created dust from as far north as Sacramento down to Bakersfield. And it was visible from space satellite. And so this was a very concerning situation for a lot of people, because there is the possibility of illnesses that come from the dust that is spread across, one being valley fever.

    And doctors and air officials here issued an alert and told residents, stay indoors. If you have to go out, wear a mask. But that was the same situation that residents had faced previously before a storm system cleared the previous smoke.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know this all is taking place at a time when there's worry already existing about climate change and what that's going to mean for the area.

    How does this fit in to that picture?

  • Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado:

    So, what observers tell me here is that they are noticing that these wildfires, such as the KNP Complex Fire and the Windy Fire burning in the Sequoia National Forest, are arriving earlier and the fires are sending much more than smoke into the region.

    And doctors and residents here say they have never seen these level of smoke or pollution arrive in their communities. And so the — there is an overlap that advocates say they're seeing with particle pollution arriving much earlier in the hot summer months, at a time when the ozone pollution is typically forming.

    And so this overlap of pollution is concerning to people. And advocates point to climate change as a factor, also considering that this drought that California is in is allowing these fires to continue to spark in many parts of the state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds like people are dealing with a lot.

    Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, thank you very much for your reporting.

  • Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can read Cresencio's full report on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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