Our new normal: Balancing wildfires with a global pandemic

Photo of hazy sky
Karen Chow/File

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On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 9, Bay Area residents awoke to a dark orange light. I went back to sleep, thinking I had mistakenly set my alarm to 2 a.m.. When my alarm went off again, I begrudgingly checked my phone, reading 8 a.m. on my alarm clock. Shock quickly quashed any remaining grogginess and jolted me out of bed. Tripping over shoes and miscellaneous objects in the dark, I stumbled to my window to stare out as far as I could into the orange haze, then soon stumbled back, smoke seeping in through cracks in the glass.

For a moment, I thought that maybe one of my professors would email our class to let us know if lectures had been canceled, but my inbox remained empty. 

Outside, neighbors’ windows glowed in the dark, and a few remaining city lights penetrated through the thick haze of the orange smoke. My roommates were piled on the couch, watching cartoons. They had been up long before me, unable to go back to sleep at the sight of the sky dimly glowing through the window. 

The sky remained dark throughout the day, the haze lingering in the air for some time after, though slowly fading throughout the week. When the orange glow cleared, the smoke remained. Relieved at the sight of a clear sky, my roommates and I excitedly left our apartment, which had begun to grow stale and stuffy from locked windows and four college students in tight quarters, to breathe in the fresh air. Instead, our lungs quickly filled up with smoke, and we returned home coughing, our eyes stinging. 

Fires have raged across the West Coast since August, causing the orange glow that appeared in the skies of the Bay Area on Wednesday, smoke blocking the sun from penetrating through the clouds. The fires have forced some students to evacuate their homes and cautiously seek shelter amid a global pandemic. In California, Oregon and Washington, dry winds sparked wildfires across the coast, leaving at least 19 dead in California. Berkeley remains untouched, though dangerously vulnerable every night that lightning appears on the weather forecast, during which Berkeley residents living in the hills are alerted to pack to-go bags and prepare for possible evacuation. 

While climate change is a constant and unrelenting threat, when the sky is blue and the air is clear in the Bay Area, it can be easy to forget how easily our world can be turned upside down.

Sitting on the living room floor, my roommates and I carefully devised an escape route on a notepad. Though my roommate’s electric car could only get us to South Berkeley in the event of an emergency, we would most likely be safe there. Would we risk waiting outside in the smoke? Or risk spreading COVID-19 indoors? Seemingly at an impasse, we left the notepad on the desk, the to-go bags in our rooms, and went about our schedules as usual, the orange sky glowing in the background of my Zoom calls. 

 The hours blended into one another. There was no sense of time or schedule. Lunch was eaten at 4 p.m. and dinner at midnight.  

Checking the Air Quality Index before checking the temperature became a daily ritual. Two weeks of unhealthy air kept us inside all day. While normally, I would arm myself with a mask and head outside to read, or to do my classwork in the park or on the roof or to walk around the neighborhood before heading back home, I stayed inside for the duration of the day. Smoke crept in through the locked windows, and white ash dusted the windowsills and kitchen sink.

I found myself losing the motivation to keep up with my online classes. The days dragged on. I felt jet-lagged most of the time. I had difficulty sleeping or eating — the routine that I had counted on amid the chaos of a global pandemic dissipated. Logging into class every day and grabbing my mask and hand sanitizer before heading out the door had become second nature. The heavy haze of the smoke and the dark orange sky were proving more difficult to accept.

While climate change is a constant and unrelenting threat, when the sky is blue and the air is clear in the Bay Area, it can be easy to forget how easily our world can be turned upside down. When the sky is bright orange, it’s harder to ignore.

No matter how many times I tried to block out what was outside my window — lowering the blinds, closing the windows as tight as I could, taping over cracks and gaps — the dark, forbidding light remained.  

Students are being affected by these fires, especially those who have seen their houses or towns burn down, and those who have been made to evacuate to unknown spaces while classes continue to be conducted online.

I know that I’m not the only one feeling affected. Students have posted Instagram and Facebook photos of the orange sky near campus and across the Bay Area, some calling it “beautiful,” others comparing it to Blade Runner, some expressing concern over keeping up with classes, but almost all expressing fear. 

As we experience a break in the smoke, there is little knowing when it will return. When it does, students living in California — not to mention Oregon and Washington — will once again struggle to balance one threat with another, while attempting to live life as normally as possible. 

But we shouldn’t treat the fires, when they do return, as our  “new normal.” Students are being affected by these fires, especially those who have seen their houses or towns burn down, and those who have been made to evacuate to unknown spaces while classes continue to be conducted online. These students — all students — should be considered as we move forward in the semester. 

Contact Marina Newman at [email protected].