Smoke carried from the enormous Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park has choked transportation staff and students alike at Nevada and California school districts located to the northeast.
The fire was reportedly the sixth-largest wildfire in California at this writing. It started on Aug. 17, and full containment is expected in the next two weeks. Satellite imagery showed the immense plume of smoke, and with it carbon monoxide, traveling on a path north through Nevada, Idaho and western Montana and into Canada.
At this report, the fire had burned more than 300 square miles, or more than 192,600 acres, and was only 30 percent contained. The hopes of 4,800-plus firefighters on the ground were buoyed, along with those of student transporters hundreds of miles away. Wyndy Bates, the operations lead coordinator at Lyon County School District east of Reno and the state seat of Carson City, said the smoke has cancelled sports trips because of unsafe air quality.
"On the buses we have had several cases of parents deciding to transport their own children to school," she added. "In some extreme cases, the students have had to stay home because of illness, such as allergies and asthma."
Bates said some bus drivers, as well as students, are wearing masks on board during routes because the smoke is so bad. Recess has either been cancelled or moved indoors all week.
Meanwhile, Margo Medeiros, the assistant director of transportation for Washoe County Schools in Reno, said some drivers are staying home because of asthma attacks.
"I can't wait for (the fire and smoke) to be over," she said. "My head hurts by the end of the day if I have to go out much."
The smoke was also bad near Lake Tahoe. Christy Blach, the transportation supervisor at Lake Tahoe Unified on the California side, said Thursday afternoon was the worst the smoke had been. She said bus drivers were complaining about being unable to sleep well Wednesday night, but otherwise there had been limited challenges, such as students being required to stay indoors. Still, she added that the smoke was starting to come in "pretty thick" and that she could barely see the mountains out of her office window.
The district does not have air conditioning on its buses, which Blach said "would be nice ... to filter things." Most of the districts contacted for this article only have air conditioning on special needs buses, if at all.
Nearby, Douglas County School District also serves the Lake Tahoe area on the Nevada side as well as the valley below, southwest of Reno and Carson City. Transportation Director Cathy Denson said the pollution level was classified as "dangerous" (see photo at left).
"It has been hard on our drivers because we don't have A/C, and temperatures are reaching 90 in the afternoons, so the windows need to be opened somewhat," she added. "Amazingly, I haven't had one driver call in sick after being out in this for over a week now. Sporting events are being cancelled or moved to areas not affected by the smoke. Our football team is traveling to Winnemucca, which is about 200 miles away."
She said the district drivers were given particulate respirators to wear. She added that regular dust masks and handkerchiefs give a false sense of security and can actually cause more harm.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said that as carbon monoxide from the fire is lifted into the atmosphere, it becomes caught in the lower bounds of the mid-latitude jet stream, which quickly transports it around the globe.
"We just need a good douse of rain. That would help," added Lake Tahoe's Blach.