Over the past few days, the West Coast has been covered by an unprecedented smoke layer from fires that have devastated more than two million acres. While the sky darkens in Northern California, the air quality has reached “unhealthy” levels in many parts of the state, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Because of the heavy smoke, which can potentially worsen COVID-19 symptoms, students in the Bay Area, Washington and Oregon have been forced to yet again adjust to a new living situation during a year of unprecedented changes. This was the case for UC Berkeley student Michael Danielian, a freshman studying bioengineering who found that the fires were affecting his sleep schedule.

“I slept in past my alarm,” Danielian said. “The way my window is, if it’s 7 a.m., the sun will be there, and I am wide awake. But I did not see the sun once yesterday because basically it was so dark they had to turn the streetlights on in the city over here.”

While the fires are affecting the way students go about their days and routines, it has also raised concerns about potential health consequences. According to Dr. Kimberly Tilley, co-medical director of USC Student Health, one of the best things a student can do is to simply stay indoors.

“Shut the windows, keep the air conditioning on, and that will keep their indoor air quality that they’re experiencing cleaner and more healthy,” Tilley said. '"If you have a smartphone, most of the weather apps will tell you what the weather quality is like on that day."

For some students, such as USC student Grace Milstein, a junior studying environmental studies who lives in Marin County in Northern California, the fear of fires impacting their home life has added an extra stressor to the online learning environment.

“I have a lot of open space behind my house that is definitely very vulnerable to be timber,” Milstein said. “So the fear of a fire starting behind my house is definitely very relevant.”

For other students, the fires have only added on to the current anxieties that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. With COVID heavily attacking the lungs in many cases, the poor air quality from the fires has sparked further concern from those with respiratory illnesses. This is the case for junior Max Gomez, a communications major at USC, whose sister, who lives in Denver, has asthma.

“My sister has a respiratory illness, so that on top of asthma, on top of, you know, decreased air quality, that makes it a lot easier for her lungs to become irritated and be more vulnerable to the coronavirus,” Gomez said.

The Campus Support and Intervention office is offering help to students affected by the fires and can be reached at 213-740-0411 or uscsupport@usc.edu. Students affected can reach Student Health for crisis counseling by calling 213-740-9355.


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dr. Tilley’s name. Correction made Sept. 14, 11:16 a.m.