Thermal Dump Fire Creates Hazardous Air Quality

By Coachella Unincorporated

The dump fire on Ave 66th and Polk Street in Thermal, Calif. worsened the air quality last week for community members living in the Eastern Coachella Valley. 

Coachella Valley Unified School District schools have been closed for four school days, starting Friday, October 18th. However, a South Coast AQMD PurpleAir sensor located at Toro Canyon Middle School showed the air quality in Thermal has been periodically hazardous since the sensor was installed on Thursday, October 17th. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has now reduced the warning for the air quality from the Thermal Dump Fire.

Image by Olivia Rodriguez / Coachella Unincorporated

Olivia Rodriguez, a Thermal resident and current graduate student at Loma Linda University, visited Desert Mirage High School and drove down Ave 66 with an AirBeam air quality sensor. The results of the air quality sensor are shown below. 

(Figure 1) Graphic of AirBeam air quality sensor.

The red dots in Figure 1 highlight the areas where the air quality is the worst. Similarly, the readings in figure 2 shows the data collected by PurpleAir air quality monitors. The spikes in air quality during the last week range from ‘acceptable’ to ‘emergency conditions’. Figure 2 shows the air quality reached ‘emergency conditions’ on Thursday, October 17th and on Monday, October 21st, meaning anyone exposed to these conditions could experience serious health effects.

(Figure 2) Graphic of the PurpleAir air quality monitor at Toro Canyon Middle School in
Thermal, Calif.

Community members can track the Air Beam Readings here and can view the Purple Air sensor readings here. Rodriguez said information about the fire is not easily accessible to community members. 

“We’re breathing in this air and we don’t know what’s in it,” said Rodriguez. “I’ve been talking to my family members and my cousins about the fire. We still see the smoke. It’s visible still today and people are still sick.”

On Tuesday, October 22nd, Riverside County Supervisor, V. Manuel Perez released a statement acknowledging the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Wildland Fire Management, CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Department, Riverside County Transportation & Land Management Agency and South Coast Air Quality Management District in monitoring the fire. 

The statement included guidance from Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser stating, “Residents should avoid any vigorous outdoor or indoor exertion,” and, “Those with respiratory or heart disease, older adults and children should remain indoors.” However, Coachella Uninc. youth reporters have confirmed community members working in the fields have continued regular work hours.

Image by Bryan Mendez / Coachella Unincorporated

CVUSD released a statement Wednesday afternoon on their website giving an update on school closures. 

“While there will continue to be smoke until the fire is extinguished, studies by the EPA have shown that the smoke is not hazardous,” according to a statement on the CVUSD website.

The statement noted that CVUSD schools will reopen on Friday, October 25th.

Read this story in Español here.

Information about the sensors for this article was validated by Olivia Rodriquez of Thermal and Dr. Ryan Sinclair, an associate professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health.

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