Wildfire smoke keeps Californians – and their pets – indoors

As counties issue air quality warnings, even residents far from the L.A. flames try to stay out of the dirty air.

Gene Blevins / Reuters
Residents lead horses to safety at the Station Fire in the Acton, California area north of Los Angeles on Sunday.

Writer B.J. Gallagher lives about 15 miles from La Canada Flintridge, where the current set of brushfires started last week. He's keeping his cats, dogs, and pet bunny inside the house, closed the windows, and turned on the air conditioning.

"I'm not only living in the smoke, I'm working in it, too," says Mr. Gallagher. "It gives new meaning to that phrase, 'smoke filled rooms.' "

Kathy Hernandez, president of the La Canada High School Parents Teachers Association, lives about two miles from the flames and has stopped jogging. She brings her squirrel-chasing dog inside whenever she can "because he doesn't understand the smoke."

"There is a mushroom cloud above my house that looks like a nuclear explosion and ash is falling," says Ms. Hernandez, a mother of two who blogs about emergency services, school closings, and interactive fire maps.

Experts say the presence of fires such as those burning now in Southern California pose health risks that often go undetected for months and therefore should engender careful changes of daily behavior. Particulates from smoke stay in the air and are drawn into the lungs where they can linger for days, weeks and months before doing damage.

Some counties in southern California issued air quality advisories for their residents Monday.

Los Angeles, which sits near the top the list of nation's dirtiest-air cities, has an inversion layer that traps dust, dirt, smoke and particulate matter in the air close to the ground.

"Dirty air is a fact of life in Los Angeles, always has been always will be," says Mr. Gallagher, who always has an evacuation plan, even if the fire is miles away.

Many know that, but some have been slow to alter their behavior even when the fires aggravate the pollution.

Landlord Lizz Tucker ventures outside her house cautiously, but she recently decided to go ahead with her annual, outdoor concert Wednesday because she thinks the current ruddy haze will be gone by then.

"I'm learning my lessons, if only slowly," says Elmer Brooks, a resident of Sherman Oaks, at least 20 miles from the fire. The last spate of giant fires near Los Angeles in 2008 gave him a chronic cough despite the distance – because of his daily biking regime which he did not let up on. That has now changed.

"You're not going to see me out on my bike until several months after this fire is put out," says Mr. Brooks, a teacher and insurance salesman. And no more outdoor pets for him either. "We had two cats who got spooked from the dark skies, ash, and brown air," he says. "They ran away and never came back."

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