‘Can’t escape it’: UC Berkeley students face increasing air pollution from North Bay fires

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Katherine Qiu/Staff

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The North Bay fires are affecting the daily life and health of students and community members, causing a spike in Tang Center visits related to smoke inhalation as of Wednesday.

Pollutants from the fires have affected air quality in the Bay Area significantly, and the Berkeley community is one of many grappling with the fallout. The largest fires started in Napa County on Sunday and have since spread to Sonoma County.

These are just part of a series of fires blazing in Northern California. Additional fires have sparked in Mendocino, Yuba, Nevada, Calaveras and Butte counties.

“It sucks because you can’t escape it. You’re literally trapped,” said campus freshman Camron King, who has asthma. “I was planning on studying up near Stern, but I don’t think I will anymore because you can really smell it over there. Last night, my roommate woke up from the smell of fire.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, or AQI, is a scale that measures the air quality in any given region. According to Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesperson Ralph Borrmann, the entire Bay Area has been in the “unhealthy to very unhealthy” range of air quality because of the fires.

In Berkeley Aquatic Park and Laney College on Wednesday, the AQI was 137 and 176, respectively, whereas a normal day for the region would be anywhere from 30 to less than 100, according to Borrmann.

Campus professor of environmental health sciences John Balmes stated that because wildland fires are considered natural events, the Bay Area is not violating EPA regulations for pollution, but the actual health effects of the particulates in the air are “pretty bad.” People with preexisting heart and lung disease and asthma are particularly vulnerable, he said, adding that everyone should stay inside with the windows closed.

smog8_jenna-wong_staff-copy“My wife has asthma, and even with all the windows closed, smoke is still getting in,” Balmes said. “People shouldn’t be trying to exercise — (it increases) the dose of the particulate because you have to breathe more per minute and start losing filtration from the nose. (The air) may even be unhealthy for people without conditions.”

Students on campus, more than 50 miles away from where the first fires started, have also felt the effects of the sudden fires. Elena Retana-Torres, a campus sophomore, said the fires seem similar to the ones they’ve experienced at home in Los Angeles.

“There was a fire very close to my house when I did live there — this isn’t that bad in comparison, but this is still pretty bad considering the way the light comes in and makes things look right now,” Retana-Torres said. “It has affected my plans. … Less time outside, definitely.”

Seven to 10 people came into the Tang Center on Wednesday with dizziness, headache, nausea and symptoms related to asthma due to smoke inhalation, according to Tang Center spokesperson Kim LaPean.

Kun Wang, an international student from Beijing, China and campus sophomore, said she and her friends are feeling uncomfortable because of the air quality, although she is not having specific respiratory complications.

“In Beijing, it doesn’t smell like this. (Berkeley) smells really bad,” Wang said. “I feel like it’s worse (in Berkeley) right now, but it will get better.”

Contact Cade Johnson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @cadejohnson98.

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