Dark skies and chest pain as California fires spew smoke 100 miles

By Noel Randewich and Sharon Bernstein PETALUMA/SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California's deadly wildfires have darkened the skies for a hundred miles, causing respiratory problems and making it hard to see the sun not only in the state's wine country but as far as San Francisco and Sacramento. Wind-driven smoke and soot forced coastal San Franciscans to breathe air as dirty as parts of Beijing on Thursday and Friday. School districts far away from the fire zone urged parents to keep children with respiratory illnesses at home and at least one university canceled classes. "I have asthma and allergies, and my chest really hurts," said Beatriz Lerma, a white face mask over her mouth and nose in a clinic at an evacuation center in Petaluma, west of the fires. Since the deadly fires began amid hurricane-force winds on Sunday night, the air has turned unhealthy or hazardous not only in hard-hit Sonoma and Napa counties, where the worst fires are burning, but locations 50 miles away or more, said Melanie Turner, a spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board. Moving with the wind, the bad air brings eerie daytime gray to far-flung communities and turns the sun orange. "The smoke is moving around and it's changing all the time," Turner said. Concern over air quality prompted so much traffic on a government website that tracks it, AirNow.gov, that it crashed intermittently Thursday and Friday. The poor air is just one strain on the region's already stretched health care system. The Kaiser Permanente medical center that serves Sonoma County has been closed since Monday along with its pharmacy, and throughout the Northern San Francisco Bay Area, doctors who have lost their own homes to fires are still caring for patients in evacuation centers. The Kaiser Permanente organization, a national non-profit medical provider, said Friday it was increasing its supplies of respiratory medications in Northern California and reaching out to families with young children and others at risk for breathing ailments. Firefighters faced more dry, windy conditions on Friday that could whip up wildfires in Northern California that have killed at least 32 people and left hundreds missing in the heart of wine country. The most lethal wildfires in California's history have killed people while they slept in their beds and prompted authorities to order thousands of residents from their homes. Paramedics said children and others with respiratory problems suffered from shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness and nausea, and local fire departments and others brought oxygen tanks to evacuation centers to ease the suffering. State assemblyman Jim Wood and his staff delivered about 200 specialized face masks used to protect against smoke and other particulates in the air, a spokeswoman said. "A lot of the people having respiratory problems have weaker immune systems, like children or elderly patients," said Megan Teutschel, a paramedic who was volunteering at the Petaluma evacuation center clinic. (Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)