Photograph by Roan Linville
Smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County that started on November 8 caused extremely unhealthy air quality in the Bay Area for nearly two weeks before Thanksgiving. The Camp Fire was 100 percent contained on November 25, after destroying almost 14,000 homes and 5,000 other buildings, according to Cal Fire. So far, 88 deaths have been reported, and many more are missing. It is now the most destructive fire in California history, according to Cal Fire.
Similar to the way that fires in October of 2017 caused bad air quality in the Bay Area, smoke from the Camp Fire reached the Bay Area, leading to unhealthy air quality. “This has probably been the worst extended episode of bad air quality we’ve experienced since records were kept in the Bay Area, 50 or so years ago,” said Aaron Richardson, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD).
According to Richardson, this year has had the longest period of winter Spare the Air days, which was extended until Wednesday, November 21. Winter Spare the Air days are called when particulate matter at 2.5 or less microns in size (PM2.5), which can be especially dangerous and prevalent during wintertime, reach unhealthy concentrations. During these days wood burning, one of the main causes of PM2.5, is prohibited in an effort to reduce the soot and unhealthy particulate concentrations.
The air quality in Berkeley worsened throughout the week, reaching an air quality index (AQI) of 247 as measured from the sensor at Aquatic Park on November 15. AQI is a scale ranging from 0-500 that measures pollutants in the air. At 247, the air is considered unhealthy for everyone. Because of this, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Donald Evans met with superintendents from nearby school districts around noon November 15 and decided BUSD schools would be closed the next day.
Even before school was canceled, Berkeley High School (BHS) students were being warned to stay inside whenever possible, and practices and games for many sports were canceled, such as the girls’ tennis team, which was supposed to compete for North Coast Section (NCS) the week before break. While the main tennis season was already over, the cancellations did conflict with NCS competition. “We had to reschedule it every day for a week,” said Maia Jeanneau, a BHS junior on the team. She added that those people competing in NCS were upset about the cancellations. “They didn’t know when they’d play in NCS and it was really conflicting with their schedules,” Jeanneau said.
Events around Berkeley were canceled the weekend of November 17, including the Berkeley Half Marathon. Andy Cate, a BHS junior, had planned to run the Half Marathon, and said he was disappointed, but added, “I understand why it was cancelled, and would not have run in the smoke if it had not been.”
Classes at University of California Berkeley were also canceled for the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving break.
While the air quality was hazardous, people were encouraged to remain indoors, and to wear masks outside.
Bay Area air quality improved to regular levels after November 21, thanks to rain and increased winds, according to Richardson.
While the Camp Fire is contained and wildfire season comes to a close with the beginning of winter, many believe that this won’t be the end of these destructive fires. “In the past two years … we’ve experienced two major episodes of very unhealthy air quality due to wildfires, and it is a concern that these kinds of events may continue to plague the Bay Area in the future,” said Richardson. “There is a pretty strong consensus that the kind of hot, dry weather that leads to wildfires will likely be increasing as the result of climate change.”