CLOSE

As fast-moving wildfires spark evacuations and devastate communities, California residents shared these first-hand videos.
USA TODAY

NAPA, Calif. — Home Depot is sold out of face masks, people sleeping in shelters have bandanas tied around their faces and residents even 50 miles away from the fires in northern California find themselves coughing and hacking as smoke and haze blanket the area.

The air quality index for San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the area around the fires was predicted to hit 180 on Thursday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly five times what’s considered safe. 

That’s even worse than famously polluted Beijing, whose southern suburbs were measured at 154 on Thursday by the U.S. embassy there. 

“The federal (safe) standard is 35,” said John Balmes,a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and expert on environmental health.

Residents who signed up for alerts from local authorities were barraged with air quality health advisories and Spare-the-Air alerts. Schools cancelled recess, teams cut sports practices and parents received notices that weekend football and soccer games might not be held.

The air quality level has been in the “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” range since the fires began early Monday morning and is expected to stay bad as long as they continue. Wind and geography mean that the haze-affected area extends well beyond the towns where the fires are burning, putting millions of people in harm’s way.