Where there's fire, there's smoke -- a sooty airborne danger potentially more hazardous to the health of a greater number of people than the blaze itself.

Two stubborn four-day old inland wildfires this week blanketed the northern California coast with a gray cloud of particulate pollution spreading from the San Francisco Bay Area south to Monterey Bay.

The areas include some of the most expensive homes in the nation, are among the most densely populated regions, and popular as first and second home locations as well as travel destinations.

Residents and visitors alike face a health risk from the smoky fires.

Nearly 200 miles northeast of the coastal area, the 28,000 acre so-called Moonlight Fire in the Plumas National Forest along the border of Plumas and Lassen counties in the Sierras is blowing most of the smoke out to the coast. Smoke-generating heavy timber, winds and difficult access has left the blaze only 8 percent contained as of Sept. 6, according to the new InciWeb, an online interagency incident information service currently piloted by the U.S. Forest Service.

Twenty five percent of the smaller, 19,000 acre Lick Fire was contained on Sept. 6, in Henry Coe State Park near Morgan Hill, about 50 miles to the southeast of the smoked in Bay Area. The smaller burn was blowing smoke primarily directly out to sea, but not before laying some haze over the popular Monterey Bay Area.

Fire smoke, like smog, is the a visible suspension of carbon and other particulates in air, and the smoke prompted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to advise the public that smoke from the Plumas National Forest was harming air quality in Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa, Solano and Santa Clara counties.

Children, seniors and those with respiratory problems, including hay fever and asthma, are most susceptible to health problems due to high particulate levels.

Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat and irritated sinuses. Short term effects can also include hyper-reactivity, shortness of breath, sneezing and other symptoms.

"It’s prudent to take precautions if your area is being affected by the fire," said Jack Broadbent, the district's executive director.

"If it’s smoky outside, keep your windows and doors closed. To minimize your exposure, it's wise to stay indoors," Broadbent said.

For people who suffer chronic respiratory ailments, symptoms can be more severe and include bronchial spasms.

Those who live further from the blaze may be most at risk for long-term damage to their lungs and respiratory systems.

That's because nearer the fire, the particulates are larger and get trapped in the nasal and respiratory passages before they reach the lungs. Farther from the fire, the particles are smaller -- smaller than particles in cigarette smoke -- so they can be carrier further aloft and inhaled in the lungs.

It's important, however, not to panic, but to know how to protect yourself and your family. Generally, the less you smell the smoke, the less chance there is for harm. Conversely, when the odor is obvious, health and air quality officials advise:

  • Stay indoors. Close the windows. It's a good time to get close to your family or roommate. Staying indoors minimizes exposure to smoke and its harmful effects.
  • Just as a heat wave is no time to quibble about the cost of air conditioning, the same goes for a smoke-induced air-quality alert. The air conditioner can filter some of the particulates.
  • If you don't have air conditioning turn on the fan (not the heat) to your heating or ventilation system also to help filter the air.
  • Stock some extra filters for your air conditioner and heating system. The bad air can plug your filters, just as it can plug your respiratory system.
  • Wear a mask to help filter out particles that you would otherwise breathe into your respiratory system.
  • If you have asthma or other respiratory illnesses, be vigilant with your medications and use your nasal sprays and inhalers as prescribed.
  • Give your respiratory system a break. Avoid strenuous activity, especially outdoors. If you gain a few pounds you can knock them off a lot easier with healthy lungs.
  • Once the inferno is over, be aware some people in your household may have developed more respiratory symptoms than normal. The ordeal can cause some to develop rhinitis or asthma. Seek medical attention when appropriate.
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