When the smoky haze that we have all come to know too well appears over the Berkeley Hills and the same apocalyptic feeling consumes us, many Berkeley citizens come to think the same thing: “Not again.” While the Bay Area has mostly remained unscathed, smoke blown in from nearby fires in other areas has repeatedly worsened the air quality for many weeks. Staying inside when possible, closing windows, and wearing N95 masks outdoors has become the unpleasant, yet recurring reality for Berkeley residents. This yearly strain is taking a major toll on individuals and institutions alike.
Berkeley High School (BHS) has been affected by the fires in several ways. Smoke and poor air quality has led to the school closing multiple times over the last few years, and this year, the fires also complicated BHS’ recent curbside textbook distribution event. Juan Raygoza, BHS principal, said the event had to be rescheduled a number of times due to “constant changes in air quality, and unknowns around whether we would have power or not.” Despite these issues, he remained positive and added, “I can’t express how grateful I am to work with colleagues and parent volunteers that remained flexible and kept the needs of students at the center of everything we did.”
Raygoza acknowledges that moving into the future, BHS is likely to have to deal with this problem again. That said, he is ready and willing to continue to deal with these challenges as they arise. “As principal, I’ll keep safety at the center of each decision and try to clearly communicate how we move forward with everyone,” he promised.
Many team sports are currently shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the BHS Ultimate Frisbee team. Aidin Terris, a senior in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) and a member of the team explained, “This was detrimental to our team, especially since the months of practicing [were] finally going to pay off in the season games.”
Adding insult to injury, ambiental conditions also made it impossible for players to exercise individually. “The loss of exhibiting my passion with my teammates already had a huge [effect] on my mental health. I felt that a huge part of my identity got ripped away from me…. The smoke halted my improvement as a player and made me hopeless of a potential season that I knew was unlikely to happen,” said Aidin. Finding other ways to exercise was a vital way to cope with the loss he felt when the season was canceled, so Terris has felt a decline in his mental and emotional health due to the impacts of the nearby wildfires on his life.
Even for athletes in the off-season of their sport, smoke negatively impacts their ability to stay active and healthy. “Being able to go outside is very important for not only my physical health, but my mental health as well,” stated Carolyn Booth, a sophomore in Berkeley International High School (BIHS). Booth is a member of the BHS Mountain Biking team and typically exercises by biking outside — an activity she cannot practice safely when the air quality is poor.
Furthermore, being able to let off steam outdoors is all the more important for students cooped up at home doing virtual learning. “After about a week of not being able to really go outside, it was really difficult to be focused, because I had so much pent-up energy and stress,” described Booth.
She also mentioned that she has sensitive lungs and airways, making her more susceptible to the physical impact of the poor air quality. “I was coughing a lot … and I was having really horrible headaches,” she said about the beginning of September, when the air quality was particularly poor. In fact, things got so bad that Booth and her mother, who is also sensitive to smoke, left California for a few weeks to escape the smoke. She reported that breathing clean air and being able to go outside definitely improved her overall well-being.
As the fires and their consequences get progressively worse every year due to global climate change, it will take perseverance and a positive attitude to keep moving forward. It is still important to keep in mind that many tasks are still achievable even when going outside is not an option. Apart from creating an opportunity for students to devote more time to their academics and other responsibilities, the West Coast wildfires also present an opportunity for activism surrounding our changing planet.
“The challenges involving fires, air quality, and [the] electrical blackouts that we’ve experienced recently have really pushed all of us to… commit ourselves as strongly as ever to address climate change in our local communities and the world,” reflected Raygoza.