California Burning

Berkeley Suffers From Poor Air Quality and Fire Risk

Persistent fires in Sonoma and Napa are causing rising air quality index and red flag warnings, particularly in the Berkeley Hills.

As of October 13, the Glass Fire in Sonoma and Napa Counties was 96 percent contained and had scorched over 67,000 acres. The Glass Fire is one of many to torment California this fire season, alongside five of the six largest wildfires in California history. While Berkeley has avoided the brunt of the fires, poor air quality and red flag warnings in the hills have been frequent occurrences over the past couple of months.  

In the affected counties, at least 642 homes have been destroyed, in addition to 333 commercial buildings. More than 68,000 people were evacuated, and on September 28, the Sonoma Marin Fairground, one of three shelters for evacuees, reached capacity.

The poor air quality and constant threat of evacuation, on top of stress caused by a global pandemic, have increasingly affected Berkeley residents.

“I think it’s just really changed my mindset,” said Berkeley Hills resident Sarah Rosenbach. “Obviously, the pandemic has changed all of our mindsets, but there’s something about not really being able to breathe or go outside, even with masks, that has somehow affected me more,” she explained.

Forecasters hoped for rain last weekend that would have given firefighters a much-needed respite, but hot, dry conditions are expected this week. Firefighters are continuing to work towards the containment of the fire. As many mandatory evacuations are lifted, families can return home. 

In Berkeley, air quality severely deteriorated as smoke from the fire blew into the city and another red flag warning was issued for the Berkeley Hills. Wildfire smoke has plagued the Bay Area and at least five red flag warnings have been issued. 

Many residences in Berkeley were built in the early 1900s and have windows with unreliable sealing that can allow unhealthy air into homes. A large state of panic has engulfed the West Coast and beyond, resulting in air purifiers being back-ordered for weeks. This has made safer homes even less attainable.

Councilperson Susan Wengraf represents Berkeley District 6, which encompasses much of the Berkeley Hills. Wengraf views fire safety as an issue of utmost importance and has been working towards prevention and preparation throughout her 12 years on the Council.

“During red-flag days you need to be alert,” Wengraf said. She explained, “You need to have your go-bag ready, if you’re planning on evacuating with a vehicle you need to park downhill, and you should have an idea in your head of how you might evacuate.”

Wengraf and her colleagues are currently pushing to pass Measure FF, an ordinance on November’s ballot which, if passed, would be used to improve wildfire prevention, update the 911 system, install an outdoor warning system, and give firefighters and paramedics additional training.

“I would like to urge Berkeley residents to be generous and to vote for Measure FF because without Measure FF, we cannot implement programs that we need right now,” Wengraf said.

Although many officials have begun to recognize the severity of California’s fires, some residents continue to feel the burden that comes with living in a place with such high fire risk. This year’s fire season is slowly drawing to a close as rainier months approach, but residents can expect more wildfires next year. With such a growing spotlight placed on California fires, citizens hope that additional action is taken, both within Berkeley and throughout California. 

“It makes you question this amazing place we live in and whether it’s worth it,” Rosenbach reflected.

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