COVID-19 and wildfire smoke put twindemic pressure on California, West Coast college students
Fall weekends in Berkeley, California, have passed in a more subdued manner than years past.
Where throngs of college students once partied raucously, sororities and fraternities now are dark and quiet. Around the University of California's campus, it's clear school is underway. But where is everyone?
Most students have been staying inside – for weeks.
Like much of California, Berkeley students have faced overlapping crises that have limited options for learning, socializing and carrying out everyday life.
First, it was the coronavirus.The university scrapped its plan for a hybrid of in-person and online courses this fall when COVID-19 cases mushroomed in mid-July. Many students moved home. Those who stayed found pandemic restrictions in place on everything from large gatherings to indoor dining.
Then, the fires came. California is battling the worst fire season in recorded history. Smoke has blanketed much of the state for weeks.
That means physical exertion outside is not recommended, and prolonged exposure can lead to headaches, sore throats and worse. Weeks after thick smoke first sent Californians inside, fires have sparked again across California. The taste of smoke comes and goes, and at times, San Francisco is barely visible across the Bay.
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Online classes have made the whole experience more isolating, UC Berkeley third-year undergraduate Katie Lyon told USA TODAY. Lyon, co-president of the Cal Hiking and Outdoors Society, has found it hard to practice self-care while staring at a screen all day, which is why she usually hikes "every opportunity that I get between my academic schedule."
That's become more difficult this semester. Wildfire season happens every year, and usually she and other members of CHAOS would travel on out-of-state trips when air quality worsened in the state.
"But because of COVID, you're really not supposed to be driving long distances or going too far away from where you live," she said. Although backpacking is still allowed, the wildfires, both in terms of air quality and the scorching flames, are making it difficult to find hiking opportunities close to home.
The experience is not unique to California. As climate change evolves and fire season burns hotter and longer, the West Coast is increasingly blanketed in dangerous air for long stretches that are likely to change the fall semester for years to come.
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Several times this month, air quality in parts of the West Coast was rated as the worst in the world by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index.
The toll on residents' health – specifically their respiratory systems – is mounting. Beyond physical effects, there's also mental: The air quality extends the stress caused by COVID-19.
For college athletes on the West Coast, the hits keep on coming – and not the ones they’re used to sidestepping.
Wyatt Hutchinson is a quarterback at Southern Oregon University, an NAIA college in Ashland, Oregon, located 16 miles from the California border.
A senior, Hutchinson returned to school this summer not knowing if he’d be able to play football this fall. Soon, the bad news started rolling in: The season was postponed till spring and most classes moved online, giving the campus of 5,800 students a static feel.
Then the Alameda Fire roared through the community, destroying two small towns outside Ashland and leaving a thick haze hanging over all of southern Oregon.
Hutchinson – who had to answer a reporter’s questions via text message because the fires damaged some cell towers, making phone connections brutally bad – said last monthhe was more worried about his family on evacuation notice in the Portland area than himself. But he certainly didn’t enjoy being stuck indoors for nearly two weeks because of hazardous air quality.
“With online learning and COVID still going on it really makes you wonder how bad you want to play football,” he texted. Having a plan to play in the spring, he said, “keeps a lot of players inspired.”
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Still, he acknowledges it’s been a tough few months. Fire season could stretch into November, meaning poor air quality could hang around until winter.
“I hope we don’t have to worry about it again, but we always have to plan for the worst-case scenario,” he wrote. “It can be stressful when you are thrown off schedule but I think myself and others can find ways to be productive inside.” He mentioned keeping busy with schoolwork, preparing healthy meals and cleaning his home.
It's hard to keep from being stressed about the situation on the West Coast. The fire season has already killed 30 people, burned down thousands of buildings and homes and forced more than 96,000 residents to evacuate. COVID-19 has cost about 58 million people their jobs at some point in the last six months.
It's a cost Irena Moon knows well. She and her boyfriend, DeWalt Mix, attend Santa Monica College, a community college near Los Angeles.
Up until July, Moon, who is pursuing a fashion degree, was the primary financial support for the couple. Mix receives disability payments after having a leg amputated in 2007. In July, Moon lost her job.
Strained for cash, and needing to save for rent, Moon and Mix found a "saving grace" in the college's drive-thru food pantry.
The pantry pop-up hosts 200 to 300 SMC students, who all walk away with fresh goods in a time when food insecurity is at a high in the Los Angeles area, said Lizzy Moore, president of the Santa Monica College Foundation.
The first time Moon went to the drive-thru, she cried. Both the generosity of the people volunteering and donating, and the fact that they were "giving it to people who need it, especially students, that was just so emotional," she said.
"It's beautiful to have some food coming in from the generosity of people and programs – it means you don't have to spend [money] and then you're not worried about rent," Mix added. "It really does change your perspective, your quality of life and your situation."
The program has run for nearly 29 weeks and will extend into the fall. The pantry serviced students as fires raged close by – volunteers stood outside as ash-covered tables and chairs and heat beat down on their heads.
"While everyone was told to stay inside, we didn't have that option, because we had to take care of students," Moore said.
Back in Berkeley, things have gotten easier – COVID-19 cases have fallen in the state, and most of the fires around the Bay Area have been contained.
Still, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that some of the progress against the virus has started to slow, and California is poised to hit a fearsome milestone: 4 million acres burned this year, with no sign of stopping.
Southern California is just entering its fire season, said Katie Licari-Kozak, a first-year student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, who is taking classes from home in Orange County. She's fearing the worst, but Northern California fires have already taken their toll on air quality down south.
"It's hard to sit on Zoom for eight hours a day," she said. And with the wildfire smoke, "you can't really go for a run."
Licari-Kozak had to evacuate twice in 2017 because of a house fire and the Canyon Fire but was able to stay with relatives. She wouldn't be comfortable staying in someone else's house during a pandemic.
"Where do people go when they lose their homes?" she said. "The one thing worse than being stuck in your house all day is being stuck and not having a house."
Contributing: Daniel Lempres, Special to USA TODAY; Lindsay Schnell, USA TODAY, Jorge Ortiz, USA TODAY