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It came from the south.

On Sunday morning, heavy smoke and ash from the Thomas fire burning in southern Santa Barbara County were carried northwest by high winds, turning the sky a dirty brown-orange and prompting the cancellation of classes at most schools in the region on Monday.

Falling ash blanketed streets, cars and homes, severely degrading air quality in Santa Maria, Lompoc and the Santa Ynez Valley, as well as southern San Luis Obispo County.

"I have had [the] experience [of] canceling school before, but never due to smoke and ash from a fire [burning] 70 miles away," Mark Richardson, superintendent at the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, said Monday via email.

More than 68,000 K-12 students were out of class Monday countywide, according to enrollment data provided by the Santa Barbara County Education Office. About 31,000 Santa Maria-area students will return to class Tuesday, with those in Lompoc and the Santa Ynez Valley returning Wednesday. 

Some degree of smoke is expected remain in the North County region until Friday, according to Pacific Gas & Electric meteorologist John Lindsey, who attributes the unusual conditions to a large, high-pressure system spanning much of the West Coast.

The high-pressure system has acted as a deterrent for several storms over the Pacific Ocean, Lindsey said, preventing winds from blowing the smoke away. Relief could come Friday into Saturday via a southern-moving cold front originating in the Sierra Nevada.

"Even though it won’t produce rain, it could produce winds blowing to the southeast [that] should help get the smoke out of here," he said.

Jennifer Montanez, a culinary arts teacher at Pioneer Valley High School, said she why the district cancelled classes because she spent all of Sunday indoors with her children.

"This is our finals week and I know some students needed to prepare for tests, but the most important thing is everyone's health and safety," she said. "I knew that there was no way for students to be at school."

To help accommodate parents with childcare arrangements, the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Maria Valley opened their clubs — which normally open at 2:30 p.m. — at 7:30 a.m.

"When the school district announced they were closing for the day, we decided to open up full days of operation," said Boys & Girls Club chief executive officer Jeremy Deming. More than 2,000 area youth attend one of the group's 10 club sites on a daily basis, Deming said, adding that Monday's full-day of programming provided students with meals and activities normally offered during schooltime.

"We try to [plan] so that whenever school is out, our clubs are open," he added. "It gives parents an option when they have no other, last-minute choice [for childcare.]"

While K-12 students were out of school Monday, classes and final exams at Hancock College's Santa Maria and Lompoc campuses continued as scheduled.

Shuffling between buildings on the way to their final exams, students — some wearing respirator masks, others trying to block ash and smoke with scarves, sweaters or hands — tried to go about their day while limiting their exposure to ash and smoke.

"Safety for our students, faculty and staff is our greatest concern," Nohemy Ornelas, Hancock vice president of student services, said in an email Monday. "The college buildings are well ventilated and air-conditioned, creating a clean air environment indoors. Our students are taking finals this week, and we want to help maintain an environment that keeps them focused on their exams."

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To limit the impact of outdoor exposure, Hancock administrators offered students at their Lompoc and Santa Maria campuses N95 respirator masks. Isabelle Rea and Federico Baldan hoped to pick up their masks Monday morning — arriving at the distribution point shortly after 11 a.m. — but were told the masks had run out.

"Today looks better; yesterday (Sunday) looked quite apocalyptic," Rea said. "We would prefer to wear masks [because] the [smoke and ash] is a little hard on the lungs."

More than 600 masks were distributed at Hancock's Santa Maria and Lompoc campuses by 1 p.m., according to an email from campus spokesperson Jessica Sheaff, echoing the high demand witnessed by area stores.

Mat Zepeda, assistant store manager at the Home Depot in Santa Maria, said the store is out of all respirator masks after sales began to spike three days ago. While he confirmed that the store has two pallets of masks on the way, he could not provide a time frame for when they will appear on store shelves.

Standing near the entrance of Home Depot on Bradley Road in Santa Maria, Dian Pulverman's party of three waited patiently to hear from sales associates whether or not the home improvement store had any air filters and respirator masks in stock.

A 20-year Santa Barbara resident, Pulverman said her group was not looking forward to going back to Santa Barbara after their weekend trip to Oceano.

"We came up on Saturday while the sky was acid green," Pulverman said. "We've had a steady stream of fires and experienced ashfall before, but we've never had air quality issues like this; the duration, intensity and sense of threat have been [un]matched by any of the other fires."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga