David Ojserkis trekked to his job at Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco on Monday sporting an accessory that’s in high demand: a respirator.
He shared a selfie to Instagram, captioning the photo, “The new ‘normal’ for walking to work.”
As firefighters make gains on the Camp Fire, the wildfire in Butte County, people in the Bay Area continued early in the week to deal with poor air quality caused by smoke drifting in from the inferno that nearly wiped out the town of Paradise, 175 miles from San Francisco.
Though public health officials continue to urge residents to stay indoors — an orange “unhealthy air” alert went out Monday — that hasn’t stopped people from lining up at hardware stores to get their hands on industrial-grade face masks, which offer some defense against toxic chemicals and gases.
Particularly popular are N95 particulate respirators, a mask and filter combination that fits over the face and blocks at least 95 percent of very small particles in the smoky air, which health officials recommend over disposable face masks that offer little protection. Fine particles blowing in from the wildfire can collect in the body to cause persistent coughing, difficulty breathing and reductions in lung function, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Hardware stores started selling out of masks Friday, when residents woke to hazy, orange skies and the smell of smoke. Renato Geslani Jr., manager of the Cole Hardware store on Fourth Street, said people in San Francisco freely spend on days like that. “They can see it, they can smell it,” Geslani said. The same thing happened during the Wine Country fires in October 2017.
Cole made a dedicated line for mask shoppers so it could ring up other customers quickly, as it did in 2017. The store has sold out twice since Friday, sending employees to restock at an Ace Hardware distribution hub in Rocklin (Placer County) over the weekend.
Virginia Carpenter, owner of an Ace Hardware store in Berkeley, said she answers calls every few minutes from people looking for face masks. They were back in stock Monday after her son James, also an Ace employee, left Sunday morning to pick up “thousands” of masks and some air purifiers from the Rocklin warehouse.
After unloading his SUV, he went on to work a shift at the cash register. He was overwhelmed by words of thanks from customers, Carpenter said.
Some shoppers are going online. 3M, a company best known for its Scotch tape and Post-It notes, has three different varieties of masks or respirators on Amazon’s “industrial and scientific” best-sellers list. The most popular is an N95 model. A box of 10 sells for $16.25.
Kristen Curry, who lives in Chico, spent the weekend shuttling back and forth to buy masks and other goods in the Bay Area to take back home.
Her cousin’s house burned in the blaze. Some of her close friends and colleagues lost parents, other relatives and pets. Curry said she wanted to contribute in some small way.
She had heard that the hardware stores near Chico were selling out of masks as quickly as they could stock them, rationing supplies to one box per person.
Curry drove Friday to the Bay Area to stay with her mom. Together, they bought out masks from two local hardware stores, spending about $200. Curry folded down the seats of her Honda Element to make room for roughly 220 masks, new clothing and suitcases, and drove north barely able to see out the back. She donated the goods to neighborhood churches and the Red Cross; most of her friends had procured masks by then.
“My intention was to donate as many as I could to the victims. Paradise, of course, didn’t have any,” Curry said. “Whether or not I could afford it, I was going to figure it out.”
Where there’s a consumer need, there’s a startup, and San Francisco has one that has drawn a measure of controversy.
Molekule sells a $799 air purifier that it claims “destroys” air pollutants, as opposed to just trapping them with fine mesh filters as traditional purifiers do.
Jaya Rao, a co-founder and the chief operating officer, said the company has seen sales tick up since Thursday, when the Camp Fire erupted, and began offering same-day delivery in San Francisco to meet demand.
Some people criticized the startup in tweets and Facebook comments for pricing its device so high. Others called on Molekule to donate devices to schools and evacuation centers.
“Everyone is talking about how great Molekule is today,” Jake Chapman, a tech investor, said in a tweet. “That’s great but can we also talk about how horrifying it is that climate change makes it so only people with a spare $800!!! can afford safe air for themselves and their children?”
Everyone is talking about how great the Molekule is today (https://t.co/3cf4HUbTXt) Thats great but can we also talk about how horrifying it is that climate change makes it so only people with a spare $800!!! can afford safe air for themselves and their children?
— Jake Chapman (@runvc) November 10, 2018
Jao said Molekule employees delivered donated units to the Red Cross evacuation center at the Butte County Fairgrounds over the weekend. They’re working to get more units out to firehouses and relief groups this week, as Molekule did during the Wine Country fires.
Molekule asked its employees to come into the office over the weekend to help with surging demand. “Without blinking, the team showed up,” Rao said.
Dozens of schools across Sonoma, Yolo, Butte, Contra Costa and other counties in the area of the smoke trail from the Camp Fire were closed. Most school districts in the Bay Area remained open.
Local administrators make the decision based on air quality reports and conditions in their local communities.
When air quality drops to unhealthy levels, San Francisco Unified School District limits time spent outdoors and closely watches students with asthma and other health conditions, according to Gentle Blythe, a deputy superintendent.
Most public schools, as well as many private schools, were closed Monday for Veterans Day.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Jill Tucker contributed to this report.
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