Crews in California were overwhelmed Wednesday when a series of wildfires caused by lightning strikes exploded across the state, displacing thousands.
Thick smoke from fires in Solano County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Eastern Sierra also drifted across the state border, sending air pollution levels in Reno-Sparks to unhealthy levels.
The Air Quality Index reached 239 at 2 p.m. Wednesday — which is considered "Very Unhealthy" by the AirNow monitoring website.
As a result, the Washoe County School District delayed the start of the school year Monday, then cancelled classes on Thursday. Normally, district officials can keep students safe by limiting exposure to outside air.
But according to Adam Searcy, chief facilities management officer for the Washoe County School District, schools have been circulating more outside air as part of WCSD’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.
“In the past, when we’ve experienced significant air quality issues due to wildfire smoke, adjustments can be made,” he said.
But on a day when air pollution levels were considered unhealthy, that approach could have put students at risk.
“We’re trying to avoid the outside air that’s laden with all these smoke particulates, yet we’re trying to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission through introducing increased ventilation,” Searcy said. “That’s a really tough balance.”
District officials say they’re concerned exposure to smoke could also make students more susceptible to COVID-19, which infects the lungs.
If air quality doesn’t improve, Searcy said classes could be cancelled again. And if unhealthy conditions persist in the long term, he said it could force WCSD to make broader changes, like moving to full distance learning.
“It’s an entirely unprecedented situation,” he said. “It may come to that, but it would certainly involve a conversation and approval from the state superintendent.”
Meanwhile, WCSD announced there had been a confirmed COVID-19 case at Reed High School in Sparks.
“WCSD is working in partnership with the Washoe County Health District to conduct contact tracing and has determined at this point in time only one individual will be excluded,” the district said in a statement.
Lighting strikes also started new fires in rural Northern Nevada.
The Scrabble Fire, which started Tuesday at around 4 p.m., has burned 764 acres of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation near the town of Sutcliffe.
The Bureau of Land Management’s Carson City District Office directs fire suppression efforts in the area, through a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to a BLM spokesperson, the fire was 50% contained with no structures threatened.
In remote Eastern Nevada, lightning also started the Elk Fire, which had burned more than 900 acres on Thursday.
Crews managed to stop the fire’s forward spread and expected to complete cutting containment lines with bulldozers by Friday.
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