Smoke blankets California mountains on July 11, 2015 | Photo by Mike Kelly

How the wildfires of California are impacting Arcata

What life is like as climate change begins to worsen
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What life is like as climate change begins to worsen

Waking up in Arcata, CA on Sept. 9, 2020 was similar to an apocalyptic movie. The sky was as orange as street lamps. Cars had their brights on and were dusted in ash. Air quality numbers began to rise.

Air quality states how polluted the air is to the public, measured by the air quality index, or AQI.

AQI levels range from good to hazardous, based on numbers from 0-500. As the number rises, the health risks worsen. Any number above 500 is considered beyond hazardous.

As wildfires continue to rage across California, the air quality has been majorly impacted. California has seen AQI’s above 500 during this wildfire season. In Arcata, despite being 100+ miles away from the nearest wildfire, the skies that were once full of fog are now full of smoke.

According to AirNow, a site that tracks AQI around the globe, by 12 a.m. on Sept. 11 Arcata had hit a peak AQI of 269.

The AQI states that air quality above 201 is considered very unhealthy and above 301 is considered hazardous: “Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.”

The HSU campus closed due to the condition of the air. Students were told outdoor activities could not be moved inside due to COVID-19. “Air quality has worsened to very unhealthy levels since Thursday,” said Humboldt State University in an email to its students. “Please note those levels may fluctuate throughout the day.”

They also warned students to stay indoors with closed windows, use a portable air purifier if possible and wear a mask that filters air rather than just cloth if they must go outside.

Despite being advised to wear a mask for filtration, most students are wearing cloth masks. HSU freshman, Dev Lebhar, wore a gas mask when they went outside. They had two other gas masks and two respiratory masks in their dorm.

“The combination of the respiratory disease and the smoke outside means if your lungs get damaged by the smoke and you get COVID, you’re in big trouble,” Lebhar said.

They claimed they haven’t felt any effects from the smoke, but do struggle to breathe while wearing the gas mask due to its layered filtration.

According to the CDC, going out in such unsafe conditions can result in similar symptoms to COVID-19, like cough and difficulty breathing. It can be especially bad for those in high risk groups. Other side effects can result in stinging eyes and throat, increased heartbeat, chest pain, irritate respiratory systems and worsen existing heart and lung diseases. Wildfire smoke can even make you more prone to catching the virus COVID-19.

According to Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit organization on environmental science, China experiences some of the worst air quality, claiming “on bad days the health effects of air pollution are comparable to the harm done smoking three packs per day (60 cigarettes) by every man, woman, and child.” A typical day in China is equivalent to 2.4 cigarettes. “1 cigarette is equivalent to an air pollution of 22 μg/m3 for one day.”

On September 11 Arcata’s average AQI was 243, according to AirNow. That means the average air quality if you were breathing it all day was about equal to smoking 8.7 cigarettes. These hazardous conditions exist all across California, including areas like Arcata that aren’t necessarily close to a fire.

The best way to protect yourself is to stay inside. Any exposure to the smoke can damage your health, especially if large amounts of time are spent outside or if you have other existing health conditions.

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