Is wearing a face mask the new normal for Californians?

San francisco
© Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images/ The view from Sausalito

Air quality in San Francisco is the worst in the world right now.

It seems almost petty to be complaining about air quality in San Francisco when so many people are dead or missing from the actual Camp Fire in California. However, the fact remains that, right now, the air quality in the City is the worst in the world, worse than Delhi, worse than Beijing.

Schools are closed and the cable cars aren't operating to protect “the safety and health of our customers and employees.” Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District tells the Guardian:

“Even the healthy among us are impacted,” Roselius said. Fine particulates can cause immediate health impacts, especially among children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions. Demand for particle-grade face masks has soared, but experts warn that masks are not a substitute for staying indoors, and that they are not appropriate for children or people with beards.


Some are saying that this is "the new normal" and that we should adapt. This is not the new normal; nobody knows what normal is. According to the New York Times, of the ten largest fires since 1932, half have been since 2010 and two were this year. The New Normal may well be that San Franciscans have to carry masks with them whenever they go out and have to spend most of their lives inside breathing filtered air.

Some dispute that this is caused by climate change; there have always been fires in California. Others blame forestry practices, even though there aren't even forests where some of these fires are – it's brush and scrub. But fire scientist Matthew Hurteau writes in the Guardian that the conditions are a direct result of climate change.

The severity of these fires is moderated by rain and snowfall. California’s Mediterranean climate means that the state receives heavy precipitation for only a few short months in the winter, and this is all that the vegetation has to tide it over until the winter storms begin the next year. As the temperature increases in spring and summer and plants use up the water stored in the soil, the amount of water held in plants decreases, making them more flammable. Similar to fire wood, the drier it is, the easier it burns. Climate change is causing warmer temperatures, which dry out vegetation more. It is also causing winter precipitation to fall over a shorter period and the length of the fire season is increasing. Vegetation in California is increasingly primed for fire.

burned out neighborhood in Paradise, California© Josh Edelson/ Getty Images/ This is Paradise, California

Hurteau also notes, "We like to live in beautiful places and oftentimes this includes building our homes and communities among the flammable vegetation." Besides the horrendous human and financial losses this causes, it also provides fuel for the fire. Our homes are filled with combustibles and, "once ignited, are an incredible source of heat that can spread fire to neighboring buildings."

So we do have a land use problem; people are living in places that burn regularly and will probably burn more often. We have a zoning problem; our cities are so restrictive about development that people have no choice. We have a building code problem; in Australia, people now have to build out of noncombustible materials, have refuge areas, big cisterns full of water and sprinklered roofs. It is all very expensive. And we have a denial problem; climate is changing and adaptation is not easy or affordable. It may not even be possible.


Some think that George Monbiot is a little over the top, but he is not alone in believing that we are approaching a tipping point. It is likely that not a few people in California are beginning to believe it too.

Is wearing a face mask the new normal for Californians?
Air quality in San Francisco is the worst in the world right now.

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