Air quality alert: 'As bad as Beijing'

The pictures tell the story: the air quality in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, is atrocious. It's so bad, that today's air is worse than some of the most polluted cities in the world. The regional air quality management district says it's as bad as Beijing. 

The Northern California fires in the North Bay have been relentless and are showing few signs of being tamed, while efforts continue to find the missing and the dead. 

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) says air pollution levels on Thursday are the worst they've ever recorded. BAAQMD runs the network of more than 30 stations spread across nine counties.Thick layers of smoke could be seen at just about every scenic spot. Our cameras caught thick smog hovering over Treasure Island. Lost in a haze, downtown Oakland is barely visible. Despite being 40-plus miles from Wine Country, there seems to be no escape. 

The management district recommends that people stay indoors, close their windows and if you have air conditioners to set them to re-circulate indoor air. Right now, BAAQMD says the main concern is tiny particles that can be breathed in and enter your bloodstream. People in the effected areas should wear a N95 respirator mask (not a surgical or mask) to avoid breathing particulate matter. 

"It can cause immediate health impacts, including asthma attacks and it can exacerbate any sort of respiratory condition," said Kristine Roselius with BAAQMD. 

As a result, a health advisory and Spare The air alert has been issued and is in effect through the weekend. Because of the changing wind patterns, air quality could be impacted for several days.

The air quality district is delivering 20,000 N95 masks to Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties. They will be sent to evacuation centers in those areas.   

And that's a good thing, because the air masks have become a fast seller. 

 "I went to Home Depot. They didn't have it. I called next Home Depot...still didn't have it.  ACE, they didn't have it...Sherman Williams they have it," said Stanley Sacturn of Oakland. 

ACE Hardware in Hayward has sold thousands of the masks. In Berkeley and San Francisco masks are increasingly becoming a part of life. UPS delivery drivers wear them on their delivery routes and cab drivers, and cyclists could be seen, sporting the protective gear. 

"It makes you dizzy as you get older in age. It gets more extreme," said Dewey Crumpler of Berkeley. 

"You can just smell the smoke. I don't have asthma, don't have any medical issues, but I understand why people are wearing masks,"   

KTVU Meteorologist Mark Tamayo says the winds since the fires began on Sunday have been predominantly northern winds and the smoke has nowhere to go but south.

On a scale of 0 to 300 the BAAQMD puts the low end at "good" and 300 as "unhealthy". Projections on Thursday for San Francisco made it to 180 and a check as of this writing had a reading of around 160 for one SF neighborhood. The good news is the numbers are expected to go down tomorrow, but it all depends on the fire behavior and the wind patterns. 

Low visibility at SFO airport caused a ground delay program to be put into place, according to officials. There were more than 100 flight cancellations as a result. 

Those most at risk include children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions or heart disease.

People are advised to limit outdoor activity and to keep windows and doors closed.