Air quality monitors shut off during PG&E blackouts in Bay Area
As wildfires raged in Northern California, Bay Area residents checked websites and apps last week to nervously monitor an approaching smoke plume roughly the size Rhode Island. What some people found were multicolored maps showing contradictory information, or in some cases no information at all.
The problem: Many of the air quality measurement stations supplying the information had been shut off when Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to the area, leading to inaccurate and confusing information.
In recent fire-plagued years, Californians have gotten used to using online tools to determine when to go out for a jog, wear masks or whether to get out of the area. But according to public officials, there are only about 250 official air monitoring stations, one for every 647 square miles, many of them clustered around large metro areas. And none of them can operate on backup power.
"When you have these wildfires, it's exposing the gaps in the infrastructure we're relying on," said Davida Herzl, CEO and co-founder of Aclima, a start-up that is working with regulators in California to map pollution block-by-block using air quality sensors on automobiles.
The smoky air in California has shown few signs of abating. On Monday, several fires smoldering around Los Angeles County created unhealthy air for many of the 10 million residents, as tiny particles known as PM2.5 grew to more than twice the recommended levels in some areas.
The 2019 wildfires, the first in which power company PG&E has preemptively shut off power in an attempt to reduce fire danger, have laid bare the drawbacks to an air quality monitoring system designed more for measuring large swaths of land over time than for providing real-time, localized data that is more valuable in disasters like wildfires. It usually takes more than an hour for government monitors to record bad air, for instance, enough time for conditions to go from perfect to dangerous. And with so few sensors, the government system lacks the fidelity required to show where smaller pockets of safe or dangerous air might exist.
While air quality has worsened in California during this year's wildfires, it is far from the dire situation last year. During last year's Camp fire, which leveled the town of Paradise, the air in Northern California temporarily became the worst in the world, shutting down schools and sending people to the hospital.
Consumer expectations have also evolved, as data about the world becomes more readily available, whether it's up-to-the minute traffic updates in mapping apps or fitness technology that measures every step and heartbeat.
Inaccurate air measurements made for a stressful weekend for Lucas Saugen, a 40-year-old photographer in San Francisco, who was grappling with inaccurate air quality measurements last Sunday when deciding whether to cancel a practice for the Bay Area Derby, a roller derby league he helps run.
The league's air quality policy cites official government measurements, but the sensors near the old, drafty warehouse housing the practice were down with the power outage. Airnow.gov, a real-time reporting service operated by several federal agencies, was showing contradictory readings. The maps showed the color purple, for "very unhealthy," while the "current conditions" on the right showed the color green, for healthy air.
Saugen instead turned to a website maintained by Utah-based PurpleAir, which sells low-cost sensors to individuals, mainly for personal use. People can share the data, which shows up online. "Within 10 blocks of our warehouse there are probably five, which is good enough for me," Saugen said.