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Wildfires: The Science Behind the Story

Through the month of October, a series of deadly wildfires swept through Northern California. In just the first week, it left over 40 dead and many more reeling as more than 20,000 fled from one of the worst fires in California’s history. Previous years of drought had left many areas dry and susceptible to fire. Even though some rainfall at the beginning of the year had mitigated the drought’s effects, by the end of the summer and the beginning of the fall season, the grass and other vegetation that are most likely to catch fire had dried out once more, leaving many communities at risk. Cities in the Sonoma, Napa, and Yuba counties were most heavily affected, with some neighborhoods burned past the point of recognition.

A wildfire is an unexpected fire burning in nature. Many homes and business are located in or near areas susceptible to wildfires: the wildland urban interface. A wildfire can be created as long as there is fuel, oxygen, and heat. Something as simple as a spark from a train track could start a fire, and if temperatures are high enough, the heat itself could ignite one. Once a fire begins, it can spread at speeds of nearly 14.29 miles per hour. Other factors like weather or topography can accelerate or decelerate the progress of the fire.

An average of 5 million acres burn every year due to wildfires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2017 alone, there were 52,699 wildfires. About 8.8 million acres were burned, far above the yearly average. Verisk’s 2017 Wildfire Risk Analysis identified 4.5 million U.S. homes as high risks for wildfire; more 2 million of them were located in California. Over the last ten years, damage from wildfires has totaled to roughly $5.1 billion.

These wildfires, as many students know, have had indirect effects on CPS. While wildfires did not directly affect the Oakland area, the smoke from the wildfires has spread to many areas of the state, often rendering the sky a dull reddish color and creating problems with air quality. While smoke from wildfires has a number of components, including carbon dioxide, water vapor, and organic chemicals, the greatest concern regarding smoke from a public health standpoint, considering the brief amount of time that most people are exposed to wildfires, is the particulate matter present in smoke.

During the week of October 9th, the smoke was so noticeable as to make it slightly dangerous for people to openly inhale large amounts of air. Many outdoor sports, including Cross Country and Men’s Soccer, cancelled practice and games because it was unsafe to partake in intensive aerobic sports. Inhaling particulate matter can put people at higher risk for eye and respiratory tract irritation, and more serious health concerns related to inhaling smoke include bronchitis and exacerbation of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. According to the EPA, there is no true “safe” value of particulate matter—in one study the agency conducted, they found that seniors were at increased risk for premature death when exposed to as little as 5 micrograms per cubic meter, with greater risk corresponding to higher concentrations.

Per the recommendation of Dean Chabon, many students wore masks to school to prevent excessive smoke inhalation. While bandannas and other articles of clothing were decent options, Chabon recommends using N95 respirator masks to ensure maximum protection.

Much aid has already been sent and reconstruction efforts are underway, but if you are  still interested in helping out, Amanda Luckey recommends checking out these links below to find out what you can do:

Donations are still needed to help fire victims, the closest places to drop off supplies are:

Ryse Youth Center in Richmond is also collecting supplies for victims of the fire. Organizers are asking for face masks and filters, adult and child diapers, hand sanitizer, deodorant and other toiletries.

Jewish Community Center in Berkeley (Walnut Street location): The community center will be accepting donations. Staff are asking for clothing and toiletries.

Oakland 1-2-3-4 Go! Records: The long-running record store in Oakland has posted a list of needed items on its Facebook page (no clothing needed.)

In addition, here are some more recent links specifically for low-income and undocumented individuals affected by the fires:



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