Wildfires in Northern California impact the already delicate situation of local USC students, as they now must deal with a natural disaster, a pandemic and the start of classes.
The fires were created by a lightning storm on Aug. 15 and have been blazing ever since. In total, they have burned 1.46 million acres of land, the equivalent of roughly 81,000 LA Memorial Coliseums, according to Daniel Berlant of the California Fire Information Center. In comparison, fires around the same time last year burned only 63,000 acres.
The fires arrived at a difficult time for many USC students in Northern California, as they not only have to deal with the start of classes but also with the restrictions of a pandemic. Now, they must also face the threat of toxic smoke and possible evacuations.
“It was kind of stressful thinking about having to, you know, pack up my childhood home. And think about like, where we would go depending on where the fire is ... while at the same time trying to get acclimated to classes online and trying to find that rhythm that everyone ... tries to find,” said Megan Tsern, a third-year student living in Los Altos, California.
Stress is not the only thing that these students must deal with. Ed Avol, a USC clinical medicine professor and expert on the impact of smoke toxicity and pollution revealed that the fires may aggravate the coronavirus in those already impacted.
“There’s some suggestion based on limited research, some research that is still being done now, that points in a direction that air pollution exposure makes COVID exposure worse,” Avol said. “That is, if your body is already dealing with the issues of being exposed to outdoor air pollution, and then you’re infected with the coronavirus, your body’s defense mechanisms are already compromised and can’t do as good a job as they might have done otherwise so you may be more vulnerable to the impacts.”
Because of all this, students have been looking for local guidance as to what they should do. However, many of them fall short of what they expected.
“Local media outlets have told us how to protect ourselves from the scope, but nothing has been incredibly helpful,” said Natalie Bettendorf, a third-year student studying Journalism and Cinema Studies and living in Berkeley, California. “I’ll read something like, ‘Oh, tie a bandana around your face when you go outside.’ And other things I read will be like, ‘Oh, don’t do that, that’s worse because it breaks the smoke particles up.’ So there’s not a lot of great information or resources to go to about protecting yourself.”
USC has offered support for students located in affected areas. In a letter sent by email, Associate Vice Provost for Campus Support and Intervention Lynette S. Merriman provided the phone number for the crisis counseling team in student counseling. The university has also offered resources in the form of both financial and mental health support.
“I wasn’t super concerned. All of my teachers at the very first week of school were just like, look, it’s a really weird time, if you like, need any exceptions or any help with anything, please just contact us,” said Tsern.
The school could improve its support for students directly impacted by providing more resources and plans, especially when it comes to information on what to do, said Bettendorf. “There are professors at USC who study climate change, they study air pollution, they study how it affects human beings. I know that there’s a lot of people who understand these things more than I do... of how to best keep ourselves safe,” she said. “So that’s what I would suggest to USC if there’s some way to disseminate that information. That’s what we’re lacking from the county.”