The risks posed by wildfire smoke aren’t merely a few days of coughing or headaches. According to Kristie Ebie, a professor of global public health at the University of Washington, the consequences of breathing wildfire smoke can be significant, because of the noxious nature of the tiny debris the smoke carries with it. “That affects not only people’s lungs, but it gets absorbed into people’s systems,” she says. Recent research shows that absorption can lead to cardiac arrest, stroke, and other deadly outcomes.
With kids home from school, people working from home, and few safe ways to leave the house, Northern Californians are looking for any outlet available to find some relief. “It’s very challenging, because everyone’s cooped up,” said Aubrey Hirsch as she sat on the floor of a Berkeley public library and built a Lego boat with her son, whose school closed on Friday. The boy was happy to have the day off, but Hirsch, a writer, lost a day of work.
Local officials have encouraged people to seek libraries as a safe destination for those who need or want to leave their homes, and especially for those who don’t have in-home air filtration or air-conditioning, which can help cycle out smoke that seeps in. On Friday morning, every seat at the Berkeley library’s regularly scheduled story time was full.
Private businesses were similarly deluged. Annie Frey, who owns The Rec Room, a “play cafe” in Berkeley, says she’s reached capacity before 10 a.m. every day this week. Overall, business is up by a factor of five. Frey says she plans to donate some of the extra profit to the Red Cross.
For those who go outside, public-health officials have encouraged residents of the region to use masks. But the kinds that act as an effective filter for the dangerous particulates in wildfire smoke are hard to come by in the Bay Area, and the most commonly available ones aren’t universally helpful. Dawn Danby, an ecological designer in Oakland, had no luck finding her family n95-rated masks, which block 95 percent of particles in the air. “It’s particularly hard to get masks in small sizes for children that actually work on short notice,” she says. Danby packed her 5-year-old daughter and visiting mother into a car to spend the next few days south of the region, where air quality is less dangerous.
Air quality isn’t expected to meaningfully improve in Northern California until at least Wednesday, which has created larger logistical nightmares on top of individual struggles. Amid mounting social-media pressure to prioritize student-athlete safety, the University of California at Berkeley postponed its scheduled Saturday night matchup against Stanford, its biggest football game of the season (literally, The Big Game), which will now be played on December 1.
UC Berkeley had also taken longer than some schools in the region to cancel classes earlier in the week, with students complaining on Twitter that the smoke was so strong inside classroom buildings that it triggered fire alarms. The University of California at Davis has similarly faced criticism for dismissing students but still initially asking employees to come to work, before closing campus entirely.