How California fires affected Cal football’s preparation against Wazzu

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Phillip Downey/File

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The performance on the field said it all: an all-time great defensive performance, an upset for the ages and the most memorable play of Cal football’s 2017 season.

The images off the field and in the sporadically populated benches of Memorial Stadium said it all, too: a plethora of face masks to protect against subpar air quality stemming from the Northern California fires.

Earlier in the week, the fires had burned more than 200,000 acres, destroyed 8,900 structures and claimed the lives of 43. While the brunt of the physical damage hit miles away from the Berkeley community, it still affected areas down south for more than a week straight.

As Cal football took the field for a primetime matchup against a nationally ranked top-10 opponent — six days after the fire began — there’s little doubt that some of the players’ minds weren’t just on football.

After a lengthy process of examining the local air quality index, or AQI, and determining whether or not the game should be played under less-than-ideal circumstances, the game began on schedule.

“The decision about whether or not to play the game was relatively simple,” head coach Justin Wilcox said in an email to The Daily Californian. “If it were determined to be safe for our student-athletes based on information from air quality experts, we were going to play. But had it been determined to not be safe, we simply would not have played.”

The defensive masterpiece, an offensive revival and Ross Bowers’ unforgettable flip into the hearts of Cal fans everywhere — it all happened. Now, more than six months later, here’s a glance back at what went down behind the scenes leading up to kickoff.

Sunday, October 8

Late Sunday evening, a combination of extreme winds and dry conditions ignited several severe fires north of the Bay Area, the three biggest ones occurring in the Sonoma and Napa counties — not too far from Berkeley.

At approximately 9:45 p.m., the first of the three began just north of the town of Santa Rosa, and by 10 p.m., two additional fires had broken out to the southeast.

This unexpected series of events would prompt widespread evacuations almost instantly, but even an array of warnings weren’t enough to save everyone in time.

It would be less than a week until the highly anticipated Wazzu-Cal showdown would take place approximately 50 miles from the site of destruction. It would be more than three weeks until all fires would be fully contained. By Monday morning, no one was left unaffected by the ongoing disaster.

Even if the fire itself didn’t escape all the way out of wine country, air quality was compromised well beyond the fire’s borders. What should have been a sunny, autumn day was overshadowed by a gloomy, particle-filled air space, making it difficult for residents to breathe.

Breathing issues can easily be exacerbated when particles greater than or equal to 2.5 microns, or 0.0001 inches in diameter, are present in the air. When consumed, these particles can find their way into the lungs, aggravating both short- and long-term health issues.

Wednesday, October 11

By Wednesday afternoon, conditions were still subpar on a variety of fronts, ranging from containment struggles to the ongoing widespread destruction of homes.

In the world of sports, a debate was brewing for both Cal and Stanford football, both of which had scheduled home games in the coming days.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, the city of Berkeley’s AQI was measured at a level of 187 on Wednesday — just two days prior to Cal’s matchup with Washington State. For context, NCAA regulations highlighting safe playing conditions are as follows:

 

  • At an AQI over 100, teams should consider removing sensitive athletes from outdoor practice or competition venues.
  • At an AQI of more than 150, all student-athletes should be closely monitored.
  • At an AQI of 200 of more, all student-athletes should be removed from outdoor practice or competition venues.

At the government level, an AQI level between 150 and 200 is labeled “unhealthy.”

Thursday, October 12

Throughout Thursday morning and afternoon, Berkeley’s AQI had reportedly dropped to a level of 155 — an improvement from Wednesday’s conditions but still above the threshold for monitoring players during activity.

There were a number of possibilities on the table should air quality worsen over the next handful of hours, including postponing the game until Saturday or even moving the game to Pullman, the home of the Cougars.

Meanwhile, over at Stanford, a similar process of evaluating was beginning to take place as the Cardinal prepared for their homecoming showdown with Oregon.

Around noon, Cal Athletics stated that the program did not anticipate any changes to the scheduled start time or location of the game, but that it was still evaluating the best course of action for all individuals involved.

Friday, October 13 (Game day)

While the sky on game day was visibly less smoky than earlier in the week, AQI levels continued to fluctuate based on wind patterns throughout the morning.

The combination of a late Friday night start time and unhealthy conditions would lead to a season-low attendance of 26,244 being announced shortly after game time.

At 3:30 p.m, approximately four hours until scheduled kickoff, Cal Athletics released an official statement outlining that the AQI had not exceeded the 200 level standard outlined in the NCAA guidelines at any time throughout the week, and that after consultation with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, medical staff, the Pac-12 and others, the game would be played on schedule.

Fortunately for both teams, all players from Washington State and a handful of Cal players questioned about the matter at the conclusion of the game did not exhibit any negative health effects from the air condition.

As for the actual game, the Bears appeared to put aside all the discussion happening off the field. While many fans, band members and students alike sported face masks to shield themselves from falling particles, their moods were certainly raised by an inspired effort on the field.

Cal’s defense was as good as it had been all season, ignited by redshirt freshman Camryn Bynum’s two interceptions off Heisman-hopeful quarterback Luke Falk.

When the handful of fans remaining at the conclusion of the Bears’ 37-3 win embraced each other on the field, it was hard to remember that the game may not have been played at all under more severe circumstances.

Many inside the stadium that night called it one of the great games in Cal football history. Many of those same people will agree that the North Bay fires were among the worst in modern history.

In reality, the game wasn’t all that close to being canceled, based on the data and regulations that were in play as kickoff drew nearer and nearer. The situation does, however, bring to light the importance of current NCAA regulations when natural disasters occur.

In the end, it was a wonderful night on the field for Cal and its fans. But outside (and above) the dashed lines, everyone is hopeful that any natural event that could negatively affect the well-being of not just student-athletes and coaches, but also the broader Bay Area community, will not take place in the near or distant future.

Josh Yuen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020

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