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WCSD alerts schools early about heavy smoke
by Garrett E. Valenzuela
Aug 23, 2013 | 1424 views | 0 0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- The playground at Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks sat empty throughout Friday after the Washoe County School District issued a directive to keep all students from outdoor activities. Students at Robert Mitchell took to the auditorium to watch a movie for their recess time.
Tribune photo by Garrett Valenzuela -- The playground at Robert Mitchell Elementary School in Sparks sat empty throughout Friday after the Washoe County School District issued a directive to keep all students from outdoor activities. Students at Robert Mitchell took to the auditorium to watch a movie for their recess time.
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The Washoe County School District issued a directive early Friday morning for all schools to prohibit outdoor activities, including recess, physical education classes and sports practices.

The directive came down from Student Health Services Director Dana Balchunas, who said Friday morning that AirNow, the government’s air quality monitoring website, reported a 120 Air Quality Index (AQI) for the Reno-Sparks area. The health-risk evaluating number rose to 166 by 10 a.m. and registered 168 at 12:05 p.m. ensuring that the decision to keep children off the playgrounds and practice fields was permitted.

“Yesterday the smoke came so fast and so suddenly, and late in the day, that when those events occur there is not a lot of time to blast out a message across the district,” Balchunas said. “We rely on principals to make the right decision for their own children. Under normal circumstances, like this morning, I check, or one of my team members will check, at about 5:45 in the morning and check again by 8 a.m. because things change so quickly.

“It is now unhealthy for all populations. It was a good call on our part when it was 120.”

The AQI measurements range from 0 to 500 where the poorest air quality registered is 500. The system is broken down as follows: Good, 0-50; Moderate, 51-100; Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, 101-150; Unhealthy, 151-200; Very Unhealthy, 201-300; Hazardous, 301-500. Sensitive Groups include people with heart or lung conditions, small children and senior citizens.

Balchunas said that the level of smoke blanketing the Truckee Meadows is unprecedented in her time spent at WCSD Student Health Services.

“I have never dealt with anything to this extent,” she said. “I have never seen it this pervasive. Usually we will have pockets where it will be smokey in one area and not so much in another. That is definitely not happening with these fires, which from what I have heard are not going to end any time soon.”

The initial California wildfire affecting the Reno-Sparks area was the American Fire, burning in Tahoe National Forest, which the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported has destroyed about “54,000 acres as of Thursday.” A second fire, near Yosemite National Park in California, began Saturday afternoon and, according to the Los Angeles Times, has burned more than 105,000 acres of land.

Balchunas said uncertainty remains as to when the smoke and air will clear up in the Truckee Meadows, adding that keeping tuned to local media outlets and the WCSD website will help residents know when it is safe to extend time outdoors. Tomorrow’s average AQI is expected to be in the “Unhealthy” range and Balchunas said when the number returns to its normal level in the 50s and 60s it will alter her department’s involvement significantly.

“Typically my department starts looking at specific precautions at about a 75, which is Moderate,” she said. “Before that, we usually leave day-to-day decisions to principals. That includes heat, cold and air quality. But when it hits 75, we have so many kids with asthma, allergies and cardiac conditions and various kinds of health conditions, that makes them more vulnerable.

“I have to look at the bigger picture and weigh the downside of keeping kids inside, and not out where they can get their energy and play time, versus protecting the kids that are vulnerable.”
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