‘Nowhere to escape’: Rippling impacts of California wildfires

Photo of orange skies in Berkeley
Josh Kahen/File
On Sept. 9, 2020, the sun never seemed to come out and the sky had turned a hazy, orange-red hue. This eerie memory, the result of smoke from the wildfires burning their way through the West Coast, still weighs heavily in many Bay Area residents’ minds.

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The sky, which had turned a hazy, orange-red hue, seemed to be suspended in perpetual twilight. The suffocating scent of smoke from the wildfires burning their way through the West Coast filled the air.

One thing was clear: It was no ordinary Wednesday.

The eerie memory of Sept. 9, 2020, the day the sun never seemed to come out, still weighs heavily in many Bay Area residents’ minds.

“I felt like I needed to escape California because the apocalypse was happening,” said Carmen Tubbesing, campus alumna and fire and forest ecologist. “It felt like there was nowhere on the whole western coast that you could go to to escape.”

It was not for a lack of trying. In fact, Tubbesing had been so disturbed by what she had witnessed, she and her husband Ben Christopher decided to leave their apartment in Berkeley and drive more than 12 hours, through Oregon, to Tubbesing’s sister’s home in Snoqualmie Pass, Washington.

Signs of fire damage were omnipresent. A long strip of steel slumped on the ground — a highway guardrail no longer able to carry its own weight. Just two days prior, the Almeda Fire had ripped through the area, destroying the wooden posts that used to support the rail. A lone car, likely abandoned as Ashland, Oregon burned, sat near the highway.

Tubbesing said the thick smoke made it difficult to see her surroundings.

“If I didn’t know, from signs, that we were in Portland, I would’ve had no idea,” Tubbesing said. “When we were driving over the bridge, we couldn’t see the river below us, couldn’t see any of the buildings, any of the cityscapes.”

Beyond creating an impediment for vision while driving, wildfire smoke leads to a wide variety of negative health outcomes, according to climate change researcher Marshall Burke. These include higher risks of preterm births, cardiovascular mortality among older adults and negative cognitive effects.

Wildfire health impacts are driven by very small particulate matter — around one-thirtieth of the diameter of a strand of human hair.

“(The particles) get inhaled, and they’re small enough that they can embed themselves very deeply into the lungs and actually cross into the bloodstream,” Burke said. “Then the blood carries them basically throughout your body, and to many key organs.”

Campus public health adjunct professor Rohini Haar said wildfires disproportionately impact vulnerable communities both immediately and in the long term.

Although government agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, do provide some support for wildfire survivors, the support is temporary, and only available for a couple of months after the fire, according to UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare alumna Annie Rosenthal.

This temporary support does not address what Rosenthal calls the “ripple impacts of wildfires.”

“It’s not just the people who are impacted the day of,” Rosenthal said. “It could be people who are disconnected from their health services because their doctor’s office burned down or people who are living in a surrounding area near a wildfire.”

Berkeley Forests co-director William Stewart said fires tend to move faster when the fuel is drier, which results in an increase in fires during the summer and fall.

Burke noted this year is already incredibly dry and is at a high wildfire risk.

Proper forest management, according to Stewart, includes reducing shrubs, small trees and medium-sized trees on the landscape. He added that this can help prevent lightning strikes from becoming “off-the-charts” public health disasters.

“They actually have a chance to really reduce the amount of damage that’s going to occur when these lightning strikes happen or when fires are started by humans,” Stewart said.

According to Tubbesing, there are some actions the state can take on the vegetation and forest management side of things to better prepare for and prevent wildfires.

After trying to escape California and ending up in a place with even worse air quality than her Berkeley apartment, Tubbesing came to realize there was no escaping the climate crisis “knocking on our front door.”

Tubbesing noted that at the end of the day, the other half of the problem is climate change — a problem with no simple solution.

“It’s a certain flavor of devastation, when I see fires in the American West because I’ve been studying them for so long,” Tubbesing said. “We know how to stop and we have the power to slow (the fires) down, but it’s really difficult to do that.”

Contact Iris Kwok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @iriskkwok.