Plumas County air quality routinely exceeds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. This excessive pollution is related to widespread severe forest fires, wood burning during atmospheric inversion events and increased dust during droughts.
Effects of severe fires on air quality
According to Will Barrett, senior policy analyst for the American Lung Association of California, Plumas County air exceeded EPA small particle pollution standards during years with extensive fires in northern California and droughts over the past 15 years.
Forest fires put large amounts of small particles into the atmosphere. Widespread severe fires occurred in northern California in 2003, 2006-2008 and 2012-2015 causing spikes in small particle pollution in Plumas County.
No measurements are available for ozone pollution in Plumas County. However, ozone pollution also tends to increase during severe fires.
Effects of drought on air quality
Vegetation is reduced during droughts allowing wind to transport more small soil and rock particles into the atmosphere than during wet years.
Drier conditions occurred in Plumas County in 2003-2004, 2007 and 2014-2016, increasing the amount small particles in the atmosphere.
Large fires tend to occur during dry years. Dry conditions tend to contribute to severe fires. Droughts kill trees and dry out fuels making severe fires more likely.
Effects of burning wood, trash and inversions on air quality
Barrett said that burning firewood and trash, either in woodstoves or in the open, is among the largest sources of particle pollution in Plumas County.
Atmospheric conditions can occur that trap pollution particles near the earth’s surface where people live. These are called inversions because air closer to the ground is cooler than air higher up, thus the normal gradient of warmer to cooler is inverted.
Environmental Protection Agency data demonstrate that small particle pollution increases dramatically in Quincy and Portola during the winter months, when inversions are more common.
Winter pollution is greater in Portola than in Quincy. In response, Portola has an active woodstove change-out program, funded by the EPA, where residents within the Portola area can replace non-EPA certified wood stoves with new, efficient, cleaner burning EPA certified devices.
Effects of small particles on health
Air quality affects your family’s health and that of your neighbors. The impacts on health depend on the size of the particles that get into a person’s lungs.
The EPA advises that fine particles, with diameters less than 2.5 micrometers, do the most damage. This is because very small particles are able to get deep into people’s lungs where they are hard for the body to remove. Some may even get into the bloodstream.
These particles, about 3 percent the diameter of a human hair, are so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope.
Fine particles damage the heart, causing cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks, and the lungs, causing asthma attacks and bronchitis.
Breathing in fine particles is especially harmful for children, older people, those with diabetes and those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions.
Larger particles, though a common form of pollution, are less damaging to people’s hearts and lungs. Larger particles can, however, irritate a person’s eyes, nose and throat.
Limitations on our knowledge of air quality
The EPA only has pollution measuring stations in Quincy and Portola. According to Barrett, a previous measuring station in Chester and a second measuring station in Portola are no longer active.
This means that air quality can vary from place to place in Plumas County, but the AQMD has no way of knowing. This is particularly true in areas that are more or less affected by atmospheric inversions.
AQMD takes no measurements for other pollutants in Plumas County, such as ozone, that also have health effects.
American Lung Association of California estimates of those people most severely impacted by air pollution in Plumas County.
High Risk Group Number %
Adults 65 & Over: 4,729 27%
Children: 3,149 17%
Diabetes: 2.064 11%
Heart Problems: 1,394 8%
Asthma: 1,431 8%
Lung Problems: 984 4%
American Lung Association recommends that people do the following in order to reduce air pollution locally.
– Drive less: combine trips, walk, bike, carpool and use buses or other alternatives to driving.
Support community plans that provide ways to get around that don’t require a car — such as sidewalks and bike trails.
– Don’t burn wood or trash except under the right atmospheric conditions.
Use a lower emission woodstove and limit your use of fireplaces.
– Avoid using outdoor hydronic heaters, also called outdoor wood boilers, which are frequently more polluting than woodstoves.
– Use less electricity.
– Make sure that local school systems uses clean school buses and that buses don’t idle unnecessarily.