The West Coast’s Hottest New Trend? Finding Breathable Air

Tracking AQI can become an obsession.

Smoke from Northern California wildfires is visible over San Francisco on August 19. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Smoke from Northern California wildfires is visible over San Francisco on August 19. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Every year, it feels like the fires, and the smoke they generate, just get worse and worse. Carlin Fuerst, a Berkeley-based software engineer, has always been aware of the impact of wildfires in the American West. “I grew up in rural Northern California. My father was on our small-town volunteer fire department, and I was on it for a couple years as a teenager,” he said. “Some years we’d get terrible smoke.” But it wasn’t until 2018, when the Bay Area started to experience especially thick smoke during wildfire season, that Fuerst became obsessed with monitoring his area’s AQI, or air-quality index. AQI is a scale that measures how polluted the air is. The scale goes from 0-500 and is divided into six color-coded categories: good (green, 0-50), moderate (yellow, 51-100), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange, 101-150), unhealthy (red, 151-200), very unhealthy (purple, 201-300), and hazardous (maroon, 301+).

During the wildfire season, Fuerst checks his AQI first thing every morning on, one of several popular AQI-monitoring websites. He said he suffers from mild AQI anxiety, but his obsession with monitoring it is largely practical: It helps him figure out whether it’s safe to keep his windows open and also, his son’s day care gets canceled if the AQI is over 151. His fascination with AQI also had him wearing a mask in public long before COVID was a thing. In late 2018, Fuerst bought a respirator in anticipation of worsening smoke. “You could just feel it in your lungs and throat. My lymph nodes were hard as rocks,” he said, recalling one of his commutes to work in November 2018. “I knew something was wrong. I felt like, fuck it, I’ll just wear the respirator. People can’t tell who I am because I have the mask on anyway. It was the first time people have given me funny looks on BART.”

Fuerst is far from the only West Coaster who has become increasingly obsessed with AQI. “Last year Mark Zuckerberg was being interviewed, and they said to him, ‘What’s your favorite website outside of Facebook?’ and he said, ‘Well I’m into Purple Air a lot these days,’” Adrian Dybwad, the company’s founder and CEO, told me. Dybwad, originally from South Africa, created Purple Air after he moved to Utah with his wife, where he worked as a network engineer. “We lived on a hill in Draper near a gravel pit. The gravel pit was very dusty. Every day I would watch dust coming out over the city below it. I wondered how much dust there was, I was curious, so I made a sensor.” Dybwad originally gave away his sensors for free, using Facebook to find volunteers who would put up his sensors throughout the Salt Lake Valley, which is how he started to create a network of hyper-localized AQI readings. Eventually, the demand for his sensors became strong enough for him to start charging money for them. Purple Air now sells sensors ranging between $199-$279, and its website has a free AQI map anyone can access that draws its data from every sensor sold. The company has since exploded in popularity. Dybwad said that had about 250,000 visitors per day in 2017; now that number is as high as 600,000. (Also: Purple Air is the preferred AQI platform of just about everybody I interviewed for this article.)

Jonathan Salkoff, a New York City native who lives in Reno, where he does voiceover work and sales for a software company, is one of many Purple Air aficionados. An avid swimmer, Salkoff does laps in a 50-meter outdoor pool every morning during the summer, and became interested in tracking air quality last year, after the pool began closing whenever the AQI was over 150. “I was in the Navy and did nuclear engineering for a while, and this is the sort of thing that totally lights me up,” he said. “It’s just a curiosity: What are the standards? When you see two indices and they are markedly different, like one is above 150 and one is below, then you start digging a little bit and thinking, ‘Why is that?’” Salkoff decided Purple Air was his favorite over Air Now, the government AQI tracker, because the individual sensors around the city of Reno create a real-time map of AQI readings from block to block, instead of pulling its data from a single centralized air-quality tracker. Salkoff said he pays close attention to AQI, in part, to start planning for his future. “If we continue to have fires nearby and if this is what August looks like in Reno, I’m probably not going to stay,” he said. “Out here in the West, there’s almost no place you can go that won’t have some amount of this at some point, given the trends of climate change … Maybe I’ll move a little closer to Denver or something like that.”

The sun rises over Sloan Lake on August 9 amid poor air quality in Denver, Colorado, due to smoke from California wildfires mixed with elevated ozone pollution. Photo: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Josh Lamb, who lives in the Okanagan valley of British Columbia where the AQI has been as high as 370 over the last few months, said that he checks the AQI “probably 100 times a day.” Several weeks ago, Lamb said he sat on his patio and watched a fire start across town. “All summer long the sky is brown,” he said. “I’m at the point where I’m kind of a little worried about my house burning down. I’m just at a phase in my life where I’m like, ‘Okay. Where should I live? Not here!’” He’s been checking the AQI in the places he might want to go next, and also asking himself: “What is the general climate? Not too close to the coasts if the sea levels rise, not too close to a fault line for natural disasters. What’s the average temperature? What if it rises by five or six degrees?” Despite how Lamb’s proximity to the fires have sent his climate anxiety through the roof, he called his AQI tracking an “unhealthy obsession.” He’s told himself that he’s not allowed to buy his own air-quality sensor so as to not get further down the rabbit hole.

Purple Air is not the only AQI service that has grown in popularity as the annual wildfire season becomes longer and more severe. Both Apple and Yahoo feature AQI information from Breezometer, an Israeli company that tracks air quality globally with an algorithm that uses multiple data sources, in their weather apps. Paul Walsh, Breezometer’s new head of North American business development, said that the company raised another $30 million in Series C funding several months ago. Statistics provided by Breezometer show usage of its API growing from 32 billion to 37.3 billion between April and August of 2021. “People joke about how the first thing people talk about is the weather,” Walsh said. “Now air quality has become part of that discussion.”

The downtown Vancouver skyline glows red during sunset on June 29 in Burnaby, British Columbia. Photo: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

Ashkan Soltani, an Oakland-based technology consultant, became interested in tracking AQI after he left his job at the White House in 2016. “I took a year off and I spent a lot of that time traveling in a camper van through national parks,” he said. “I had the ability to go anywhere, so I would plan where I would end up based on air quality.” When he first became an AQI tracker, he would use Accuweather or the weather app on his phone, but as he became more knowledgeable about the whole thing, he transitioned to getting his data from Purple Air and another company called AirVisual. A few months ago, Soltani bought an air-quality sensor made by AirVisual to track the AQI inside his home. “It turned out that the air-intake vents for our apartment building still permitted a lot of the particulate stuff to come in,” he said. “If it’s in the hundreds outside, it will be close to the hundreds inside as well, even with the windows closed and two air purifiers running. We didn’t realize that roasting meats and even things like Brussels sprouts totally spikes the inside particulate matter briefly.” After this surprising finding, Soltani updated his air filter by cutting up a mask, and using that as a barrier, which he says has worked out pretty well.

Soltani’s home sensor allows him to keep the air in his apartment healthy. On really bad days, his favorite air-quality trackers reveal all the smoke-free places he can travel to, so he can be outside without each breath making him feel like he’s just smoked a pack of cigarettes. Soltani has always paid attention to air quality, having grown up in the smog of Los Angeles. “At that age, it didn’t affect me mentally all that much. I think part of the reason was that there wasn’t much we could do about it,” he said. Now, however, his AQI obsession gives him more agency.

The West Coast’s Hottest New Trend? Finding Breathable Air