Santa Clara County fears July 4th will jumpstart fire season, toxic air
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez speaks at a news conference about wildfire risks from illegal fireworks. Image courtesy of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Santa Clara County officials have a simple request of residents celebrating this Fourth of July weekend: Please don’t burn the county down.

“Fireworks are a greater danger in Santa Clara County than ever before,” said county Deputy Chief of Fire Prevention Hector Estrada. “They result in deaths, injuries and property damage. And unfortunately, year after year, we’re seeing firework activity continue.”

Estrada and other officials from San Jose and the county gathered at the parched East San Jose Foothills for a news conference on Wednesday to encourage residents to not set off fireworks this weekend and instead attend sanctioned firework launches.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez warned that vegetation in the area is excessively dry because of California’s historic drought, and wildfire season is starting months earlier this year.

“We’re trying to remind people the number of days they couldn’t breathe last year because of fires in our own community,” Chavez said. “Because of the drought and climate changes the worst we could imagine hasn’t happened yet and we don’t want it to happen.”

The immediate fear among county officials is that fireworks will jumpstart the fire season, setting off brush fires across the region. But there’s also fear that as fires return so will the smoke, posing a different but equally dangerous public health threat.

Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer and air pollution control officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told San José Spotlight that the number of wildfires—and their intensity—is increasing. This has significant public health consequences because people are exposed to wildfire smoke for longer stretches of time.

In 2020, wildfires in California burned 4.1 million acres, killed 33 people and destroyed 10,000 structures. Smoke from the fires also blanketed the state for weeks at a time.

In the San Jose area, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) spiked in mid-August, and by September the region was experiencing days of “unhealthy air,” the third worst category on the Air Quality Index.

“Keep in mind, wildfires are not only burning trees and wood but also structures, cars, plastics—everything,” Broadbent said. “So the air we’re breathing during a wildfire is quite toxic.”

At the news conference, Broadbent urged South Bay residents to start weatherizing their homes now in anticipation of wildfire season. He recommended that people purchase a MERV 13 filter or a non-ozone producing air purifier for their HVAC systems so they can have at least one “clean air room” in their home.

He also noted that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is deploying air filtration units to vulnerable residents and helping others reduce vegetation around their homes to prevent fires.

Prolonged exposure to particulate matter is especially dangerous for sensitive groups, such as the elderly, people with asthma or cardiovascular disease.

Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer and air pollution control officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Photo courtesy of air district.

Adam Kochanski, assistant professor at the department of meteorology and climate science at San Jose State University, said that once the Air Quality Index exceeds 150, exposure is unhealthy for everyone. Last year, Stanford researchers reported that wildfire smoke may have been responsible for 1,200 excess deaths throughout California.

Wildfires in California are so massive and intense that they affect local meteorological conditions, Kochanski said. One impact is that wildfire smoke blocks incoming solar radiation, creating less heat on the ground. The lack of heat prevents vertical mixing that would normally disperse the smoke, creating a feedback loop that traps the toxic air.

“Mixing this huge smoke layer is much more difficult, so (it) becomes much more persistent,” Kochanski said. “So the more smoke we have… the harder it is gets to get rid of the smoke.”

There’s good indication that this year’s fire season will be worse than last. As of May 27, rainfall in the Bay Area for the 2020-2021 season was only about 35% of what it is normally, according to a presentation by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who recently introduced a bill to waive overtime pay caps for federal firefighters who battle wildfires, issued a statement that said the number of new wildfires across the U.S. is already at a 10-year high.

The number of fires in California this year is already 53% higher than the five-year average, said Dwight Good, Cal Fire assistant chief of cooperative fire protection.

“Typically, Independence Day celebrations result in twice as many fires as any day of the year,” Good said during Wednesday’s conference.

San Jose was forced to reckon with illegal fireworks after complaints tripled during the pandemic. On top of doubling fines for first-time violations, the San Jose City Council approved a Social Host ordinance that allows the city to fine tenants and property owners for any fireworks launched on their property, even if they didn’t set them off.

Fire enforcement officials across the county are adopting a zero-tolerance approach to fireworks.

“If we catch you with fireworks we’re going to prosecute you whether it’s a misdemeanor or if it’s over 100 pounds it turns into a felony,” said Jim Rajskup, Cal Fire chief of enforcement, during the news conference. “We’re not giving out warnings this year.”

For more information on air quality in the Bay Area, residents can review the air district’s website, AirNow, PurpleAIR Map and ClarityOpenMap.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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