UC Berkeley carries out preparations for wildfire season

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In 2018, California wildfires devastated UC Berkeley student communities, and the trail of smoke wafting from the Camp Fire resulted in event cancellations, game postponements and widespread use of N95 respirator masks among the student body.

Since then, campus administration has received criticism for its decision to prolong the cancellation of classes as well as its reliance on the ASUC to help the community protect itself from poor air quality. A similar situation could likely arise in the future as a large wildfire threat is still present in the Bay Area — particularly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recent “red flag” warning for the North Bay mountains, East Bay hills and the Diablo Range in late September. In the meantime, conversations surrounding wildfire preparedness have persisted at both the UC system and campus levels.

Despite some criticism from the administration’s handling of last year’s wildfire season, campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email that the campus works “proactively” to update students and monitor the local air quality index, or AQI.

“We consult closely with our campus medical physicians for their counsel on best practices,” Gilmore said in the email. “We have, and will continue to, follow their advice.”

The UC Office of the President, or UCOP, also formed a new systemwide air quality protocol working group in 2019 to better shape the UC system’s response to wildfire edicts, according to UCOP spokesperson Elisa Smith. Smith added that the group is in the process of creating “systemwide actions that will occur at certain air quality index thresholds.”

In the past, the campus has considered ensuring that classes be canceled when a campus AQI hits 200 — the number at which it is recommended people limit time outdoors.

In a recent letter to Student Regent Hayley Weddle, however, ASUC President Amma Sarkodee-Adoo, External Affairs Vice President Varsha Sarveshwar, as well as ASUC Senators Derek Imai and Sylvia Targ all recommended that campuses cancel classes when AQI hits 150. Once AQI reaches 150, physical exertion is inadvisable. The letter classifies students walking miles to class, “including on inclines,” as physical exertion.

“As climate change worsens our state’s wildfires, it is crucial that the UC Office of the President develops air quality standards that reflect the lived experiences on our campuses,” the letter said.

On campus, one of the preexisting organized efforts focused on coordinating wildfire preparedness and response is the Office of Emergency Management, or OEM.

In 2017, however, the office’s employment roster was slashed from four to two due to budget cutbacks. Two years later, Alicia Johnson joined the office as its new director, and the office is currently looking to hire an additional full-time staffer, according to Gilmore.

“The Office of Emergency Management is a functional, forward leaning, inclusive organization focused on human well being while managing crisis with the utmost professionalism,” Gilmore said in the email. “We aim to build an extended team of campus and community partners dedicated to UC Berkeley’s success in a crisis.”

Johnson said UC Berkeley has joined efforts to help mitigate wildfire risk throughout the Hill Campus, which includes the removal of highly flammable eucalyptus trees — in addition to OEM action.

In tandem with its mitigation efforts, the campus has also focused on resources for wildfire victims. University Health Services, or UHS, offers counseling for any student, faculty or staff affected by wildfires, according to UHS spokesperson Tami Cate.

Since last year’s wildfire season, UHS has also stocked a small supply of N95 respirator masks, which will be on reserve for emergency use. Cate added those with underlying relevant medical conditions will be given priority in mask distribution.

ASUC Senator Shelby Weiss said she works alongside Alicia Johnson, as she serves as the undergraduate representative on the emergency management advisory committee.

“In an ideal world, our school would have the resources to provide for all the basic health needs of all students,” Weiss said. “(It’s now) a matter of making sure that we get masks to those who need it.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.