City & County

Purple Air Warnings Not Enough

by | Oct 26, 2021

lady walking dogs on smokey day oakland by Paul Chinn

Walking the dogs on a smoky day on the Oakland shore. Photo: Paul Chinn, SF Chronicle, Polaris

If late fall fires start up again after the October deluge, Alameda County will already have smoke alert protocols in place. The county developed specific thresholds and delivery systems for alerts over the past two years. “Our geography creates a particular need for us to address smoke,” says county sustainability project manager Sarah Church. Church earned the title “smoke quarterback” from her work convening a variety of partners in county health, emergency, and environmental services to discuss how to address the smoke, which blanketed much of the East Bay for long unhealthy periods of “red air” in recent summers. With prevailing winds off the Pacific blowing up against the East Bay hills, smoke often gets trapped in low inland areas of the county.

In crafting their new alerts, the county also worked to remove jargon and use plain language. The “Purple Air” real-time air quality app is not a click away on a smart phone for all, for example. “We found when we tested messages using EPA terms like ‘orange air’ and ‘red air’ for levels of air pollution, people didn’t know what we were talking about,” says Church.

Results of focus groups also suggested that some members of public were less likely to pay attention to county smoke alerts on their phones or Facebook than to information from a trusted local institution. As a result, the county created a new subscription within their alert system available to community institutions such as churches, youth organizations, senior centers, and worker centers.

The county also defined air quality thresholds and duration periods for alerts, and protocols for county health and other officials to implement. Experience with these air quality communications also informed the county’s COVID-19 response.

Such protocols are part of a body of fast-developing models for better regional communication about when to close schools or how to manage clean air shelters, among other wildfire season challenges discussed at a recent meeting of the Bay Area Climate Action Network, where Church shared what she learned with other cities and counties.

“Climate change threats are now, and we all have to come up to speed very quickly, ” she said. “No one can do it alone.”

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About The Author

Ariel Rubissow Okamoto

is KneeDeep’s managing editor. She is a Bay Area environmental writer, former editor of Estuary News magazine, and a co-author of a Natural History of San Francisco Bay (UC Press 2011). For the last decade, she’s been reporting on innovations in climate adaptation on the bayshore. She is also an occasional essayist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In other lives, she has been a vintner, soccer mom, and waitress. She lives in San Francisco. See her work at