How to stay safe during California wildfire season

The Student Health Center is open both for telemedicine and in-person appointments for those having trouble breathing.

Across the West Coast, unprecedented wildfires have torn through more than three million acres of land this year, taking lives and destroying homes. The sky is blood orange across Northern California, Oregon and Washington, with climate change proving to be a key factor in these extreme conditions. On the USC campus, the smell of smoke in the atmosphere is undeniable. With worsening air conditions amid a global pandemic, here are some tips from experts on staying safe and healthy.

First, check the air quality of your area. There are multiple sites to help you do this, including one by the Environmental Protection Agency and one by the National Weather Service.

The air quality index scale runs from zero to 500, with numbers beyond 100 deeming air quality unsafe for sensitive groups, including those who have preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma and those with heart disease. These groups are also at higher risk for complications that might result after contracting COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Central Los Angeles had an air quality index of over 89 Thursday evening, according to the Southern Coast Air Quality Management Agency maps. The agency manages air pollution in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside County.

Health experts recommend limiting outside exposure when there are heavy amounts of smoke in the atmosphere. Physical exercise and outdoor activities should move indoors, and air conditioning within households should be placed on a recirculatory setting to prevent introducing new pollutants into the home, according to USC professor Edward Avol.

According to USC Keck Medicine Co-Medical Director Kimberly Tilley, those with preexisting conditions should double down on securing their home from pollutants.

“Changes in air quality can exacerbate their underlying chronic lung disease,” Tilley said. “In situations like this, they would want to stay indoors. They want to close the windows, turn the air conditioning on because that’s going to limit their exposure to those outdoor pollutants.”

When it comes to balancing the growing fires with the ongoing pandemic, the CDC advises that increased exposure to air pollutants can be especially harmful to those affected by COVID-19. The warning applies to those who currently have COVID-19, are at-risk, or have recovered from contracting the virus. For those who have recovered, the virus’s effect on lung and heart function is still unknown, according to the CDC, and respiratory function may still be compromised.

“The potential exposure of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke make it multiplicatively difficult for your body,” said Avol, who is a professor in the Health Promotion Disease Prevention program at the Keck School of Medicine. “You’re fighting two potential assailants instead of one.”

USC students near campus should also consider the air quality of the surrounding community of South Central Los Angeles — which has higher levels of pollution than other parts of Los Angeles County, according to Avol.

The Student Health Center is open both for telemedicine as well as in-person appointments for those experiencing extreme breathing difficulties.

“If we’re concerned on that telemedicine [call] or when they reach out to us, we can schedule them to come in for an in-person visit,” Tilley said. “[We can] do an exam, measure their pulse ox[ygen levels], make sure there’s nothing more serious going on that we’re concerned about.”

According to Avol, Californians can expect the wildfire season to grow more extreme throughout the coming months. September and October are the most vulnerable months for wildfires due to dry winds that cycle through the state.

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