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Smog Levels Rise Past Acceptable Standards

Pollution: Officials are close to issuing year's first health advisory. Oppressive weather system and ash from a huge fire add to the misery.


While a nearby wildfire tainted Ventura County skies with yellow smoke Thursday, an oppressive weather system sent smog levels climbing past acceptable air quality standards for pollution.

Carried by slow air currents, ash from the Castaic Lake fire drifted down from the skies, adding to a witch's brew of pollution caused by the ozone-producing effect of extreme heat and a lingering high-pressure system.

As smog hung heavy, blending with the smoky pall of the fire--now within a mile of the Ventura County line--air quality officials teetered on the brink of issuing the first pollution health advisory for 1996.

They watched as air monitors easily surpassed both state and federal quality standards and hovered just below the standard whereby residents are told to avoid going outside.

Temperatures Thursday peaked at a sweltering 101 in Ojai, Fillmore and Piru. Simi Valley roasted at 97 and Thousand Oaks hit 93. But by late afternoon, it appeared the county would not have to issue an advisory.

"No cookie," said Kent Field, with the Ventura County Air Quality Board. "But the air was still unhealthful."

Air quality was worst in the eastern end of the county Thursday, with Simi Valley bearing the brunt of the pollutants and Moorpark and Thousand Oaks a close second. But despite the smog that has clogged county skies since Wednesday, Field said overall, ozone levels have much improved this year.

"We still have not issued a health advisory in 1996," Field said. "Normally we average about seven a year."

Even without a formal advisory, some county residents stayed inside deliberately to avoid the unpleasantly heavy air. At the Thousand Oaks Residential Care Home, administrator Diane Parker said most of her elderly patients were not venturing outside.

"Unless they are going out for a doctor's appointment or something, we tell them to stay inside," Parker said. "That is a normal precaution when it is hot like this. We just tell the residents not to go out for a walk."

High ozone levels--generated by the hot sun cooking pollutants in the atmosphere--are particularly damaging to the elderly, to small children and to those suffering from lung diseases such as asthma and emphysema.

In Simi Valley, where the pollutant standard index rose to 123 Thursday, far exceeding state standards of 78 and nearing the advisory level of 131, emergency room officials at Simi Valley Hospital noticed a slight increase in visits from asthma patients.

And Simi Valley pulmonary specialist Dr. Sherif Henein said his patient load has increased in the past few days.

Conditions such as these are not only bad for those with lung disease, he said, but rough on people with chronic bronchitis or allergies.

"After a fire or if the air quality is really bad, the allergies are going to get a lot worse," Henein said.

From the Santa Clara Valley to Thousand Oaks, county residents wiped a fine dust of ash off their cars, checked out the hazy skies and nursed little tickles at the back of their throats.

Air quality expert Field said the Castaic wildfire has made the air look terrible, but that the county's monitoring equipment is not sophisticated enough to determine whether fallout from the fire is contributing to the air quality violations.

People who find ash on household surfaces or on their car should assume that finer, more hazardous particulate matter is also in the air, he said.

"If there is ashy stuff on your car, you are probably getting some smaller stuff in your lungs as well," Field said.

Relief is in sight this weekend, as meteorologists with the National Weather Service predict the high pressure system will ease off slightly beginning today. That should allow sea breezes to blow out the ozone and make way for a reappearance of the summer marine layer during the long holiday weekend, perhaps as early as Sunday, meteorologist Dennis Tussey said.

Temperatures should drop the next few days as well, Tussey said.

But smoke from the Castaic fire will very likely continue to roll across the county until firefighters can halt its progress. The fire is only 20% contained and has already raged across 19,800 acres.

Ventura County Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells said local fire officials have been monitoring the fire by air as it nears the county line.

"It's only a mile out of Ventura County now," Wells said. "But it is in the back country so we aren't too worried. We are going to keep monitoring it though."

One strike team--about 18 firefighters--from Ventura County was battling the Castaic fire under miserably hot conditions Thursday, Wells said. That team will be relieved by another Ventura County team today, she said.

"It just wipes you out," Wells said.


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