UC Berkeley revises wildfire response protocols after devastating Camp Fire

Line chart of AQI over time in SF-Oakland-Hayward
Kaitlan Tseng/Senior Staff

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A year after California’s most devastating wildfire, UC Berkeley is bolstering its wildfire preparedness to ensure campus well-being in the event of another local natural disaster.

November 2018’s Butte County Camp Fire was the most destructive wildfire in state history, ravaging more than 100,000 acres of land and killing 85 people. The smoke from the flames affected local air quality, affecting the community’s health and leading to the cancellation of classes.

To ensure the campus is prepared to respond to the needs of its community and prevent exacerbation of respiratory illness during future wildfires, UC Berkeley supported the efforts of the UC system’s air quality protocol, an effort to develop recommendations about how campus operations should prepare for fires. Its annual report details preparedness plans, protective actions and additional resources, according to UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

“In wildfire situations, we communicate proactively to students with the latest information, advice, and campus actions,” said Gilmore in an email. “We monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI), and we stay in contact with the Bay Area Quality Management District. In addition, we consult closely with our campus medical physicians for their counsel on best practices. We have, and will continue to, follow their advice.”

During 2018’s wildfires, classes were cancelled Nov. 16, when the air quality index surpassed 200, reaching “very unhealthy” levels determined to adversely affect everyone, not just those with pre-existing illnesses.

Since the Camp Fire, UC Berkeley has taken inventory of  filtered mechanical ventilation systems in campus buildings, identified cleaner air structures and prepared procedures for inspections and maintenance, Gilmore said in an email.

According to the Office of Emergency Management there are numerous partnerships in place to help mitigate wildfire risk throughout campus. These efforts will include the removal of highly flammable flora and the use of goats to manage ground cover.

Gilmore added that UC Berkeley has also trained outdoor workers on preparedness actions, investigated the installation of outdoor air-monitoring stations and acquired about 10,000 N95 respirator masks.

The emergency respirator masks will be prioritized for students with heart and respiratory diseases, who are more susceptible to the effects of degraded air quality.

“Particulate respirators … may filter out some of the particulate matter, but they do not filter harmful chemicals found in smoke, and are proven to provide protection only if individually fitted by a trained technician,” said University Health Services spokesperson Tami Cate in an email. “While they may provide limited particulate filtration and comfort for those sensitive to the smoke, they can also increase the work of breathing, and they are NOT a substitute for staying inside.”

During last year’s fires, campus medical staff reached out to those with asthma diagnoses, and students remaining on campus were urged to stay indoors whenever possible.

According to a statement released by Chancellor Carol Christ last November, the campus buildings with the best air filtration systems are the East Asian Library, Main (Gardner) Stacks, the Haas School of Business complex, the Law Library, the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library and the Marian Koshland Bioscience, Natural Resources and Public Health Library. She said the air quality in these buildings was 20-40 percent better than outside conditions.

Although the campus was technically closed during the worst of last year’s wildfire season, a limited number of essential campus operations remained open including UHS, dining halls, residential facilities, UCPD services and the Office of Environment, Health and Safety, according to Christ’s statement.

Gilmore stated in an email that mental health support is also offered through the Counseling and Psychological Services located at the Tang Center. Additionally, monetary support is available to students affected by natural disasters.

Gilmore added that the UC system air quality report was submitted to UC President Janet Napolitano on Sept. 27, and the systemwide Council of Chancellors will discuss the recommendations Oct. 2.

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @V_anana.