UC Berkeley community processes cancellations caused by smoke

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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After a week in the trail of smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County, life at UC Berkeley was disrupted as adverse air quality caused classes to be canceled Thursday evening through Tuesday and the Big Game to be postponed.

On Sunday afternoon, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced that both Monday and Tuesday classes will be canceled because of continuing poor air quality.

In her statement, Christ said “it remains uncertain as to whether current conditions will persist,” and she elected to extend the pause on instruction that began Thursday night.

“Yeah, I think it’s a good thing, and maybe if she was taking the decision earlier for Friday, it would have been better for people,” said campus student Yassine Ben Yacoub. “Just safety and health first.”

Throughout last week, air quality indexes fluctuated from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy.” Other schools such as UC Davis and Sacramento State University canceled classes earlier in the week. The Berkeley Unified School District and Berkeley City College also canceled classes because of the poor air quality before UC Berkeley.

“I don’t have any respiratory issues but … I (have) definitely seen the way my friends who have asthma have been having asthma attacks and how it’s affected them to a greater extent,” said campus sophomore Omatara Oloye.

By noon Friday, a line of hundreds of people waiting to receive respirator masks from the ASUC had begun to form on Sproul Plaza.

Students flashed their Cal IDs in exchange for N95 respirator masks — usually used in construction — to help filter out particulates in the air from the fire. The masks have become a common sight in Berkeley, which is situated amid the trail of smoke from the worst wildfire in California’s history.

Helping to hand out masks, Oloye said the decision to cancel classes was necessary, but too delayed.

“I do think the cancellation of classes came a little bit later than what a lot of us would have liked,” Oloye said. “It was really unfortunate that we had to pass some sort of threshold for it to be deemed unhealthy when there are people who have respiratory problems.”

At 1 p.m. Friday, the 121st Big Game against Stanford University was also postponed because of the air quality, a day before it was scheduled to take place. The most anticipated football game of the year was rescheduled to Dec. 1 “due to concerns for the health and well-being of student-athletes, staff, the band and student groups, and fans,” according to a statement from Cal Director of Athletics Jim Knowlton.

“When you come to Berkeley, you know that game is sort of an important game for everyone, even if you don’t really enjoy football,” said campus freshman Ben Satzman. “It was good that they decided to postpone, though, considering the players having to deal with the smoke.”

According to ASUC Senator William Wang, athletes on the football team were among the students receiving masks Friday. The day before, about 3500 masks were handed out by the ASUC, which Wang says was made possible by senators donating contingency funds.

Although Christ released a statement Thursday evening about the limited effectiveness of N95 masks, Wang said the demand for the masks was high, and students swarmed to the ASUC table once they heard masks were being distributed.

“I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but it painted a picture. It was very apocalyptic,” Wang said. “It was a very emotional moment where the few volunteers who showed up were stunned by the demand and how little the UC was doing to provide masks. It was absolutely true — if we’re going to be breathing 200-plus Air Quality Index, we’re going to need this.”

Campus architecture professor Ronald Rael recounted how the smoke was impacting his colleagues — some have had asthmatic reactions and were not able to come to class because they could not speak or breathe very well.

For Rael, the fire makes concerns about climate change an evident reality, especially for the Bay Area.

“It’s impacting everyone, whether there’s been evident physical reaction or psychological reactions,” Rael said. “Tragedy shouldn’t be the way the lesson is learned. How to avoid tragedy should be the lessons that we try to impart.”

Contact Brandon Yung at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.