Air quality warning: Navy ship fire spreads stench across county

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SAN DIEGO — San Diego residents from the South Bay to parts of North County woke up Monday morning to a burning electrical smell — the result of acrid smoke billowing from a fire on a ship at Naval Base San Diego.

The USS Bonhomme Richard had been burning for nearly 24 hours by the time most residents started their day Monday.

Officials for San Diego County and National City issued air quality warnings for residents, telling them to close their windows and limit time spent outdoors if there is a strong smell of smoke in their area or if they have sensitive health.

“In areas of heavy smoke, assume that air quality levels (range from) unhealthy for sensitive groups to unhealthy for all individuals,” the county’s Air Pollution Control District wrote. “In areas with minor smoke impacts, assume that air quality levels range from moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

Residents from Chula Vista, North Park, Oceanside, Encinitas and Ramona — among others — called in to FOX 5 Monday to report the smell.

On the coast, smoke mixed with the marine layer to create thick fog, though that was expected to partially burn off as the day heated up.

A golfer plays on as a fire burns on the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego on July 12, 2020 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Rear Adm. Philip Sobeck told reporters Sunday that there are no large caches of weapons aboard the ship and that he was not concerned about toxicity of the fumes.

“If you look at the type of fire we have, again, an ashy fire. There’s nothing toxic in there,” Sobeck said. “It’s just black smoke … and we’re starting to see more white smoke, which is a good sign.”

The county’s advisory makes no mention of toxicity either, instead referring to increased measures of “particulate matter” from the blaze as the reason for the warning. Particulate matter is a mix of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that can be dangerous to inhale at high levels — common sources include car exhausts and industrial plants, along with fires, according to the EPA.

Health officials measure particulate matter levels to determine air quality, because if people inhale too much of them, “these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects,” the EPA explains.

“Highest smoke concentrations … will shift through the day as onshore breeze kicks in. Good news is smoke should lift somewhat as temps heat up,” National Weather Service San Diego explained in a tweet. “We recommend you keep windows shut, especially if the smell is particularly strong.”

Read the county’s air quality forecast and get more information here.

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