Public schools are closing across California’s Bay Area on Friday, along with a number of businesses and universities, as air quality from wildfires worsens and the number of people reported dead or missing continues to rise.
More than 1 million students in California were reportedly sent home throughout this week due to hazardous air quality as deadly wildfires continued to blaze across the state. According to CALmatters, that number represents around one in six public school students in California, in what officials said was one of the biggest mass-closures in the state’s history. Many private schools and colleges also shuttered in response to deteriorating air quality levels.
“The safety of students and staff is paramount and the poor air quality conditions throughout the Bay Area made this a necessary step,” said Superintendent of Alameda County schools L. Karen Monroe, of closures in the area as the nearby Camp Fire continues to rage.
The University of California Berkeley similarly canceled Thursday afternoon classes and all classes on Friday. In a message sent to students, the university advised that the closures were thanks to air quality concerns. Friday’s forecast, the university said, “indicates that conditions are expected to deteriorate”, surpassing the level considered safe for students.
While classes in large urban areas are being canceled because of smoke, other areas are shuttered in the aftermath of tragedy. Those closures come amid the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. The Camp Fire has killed at least 63 people as of Friday morning, while neighboring fires in the southern part of the state account for an additional three deaths. More than 630 people have also been reported missing.
Loss of life isn’t the only concern. Thousands of structures have burned and at least one town, Paradise, has been virtually annihilated, leaving as much as 90 percent of its students without homes. The Camp Fire was only 40 percent contained as of Friday morning, with officials still concerned about the fire’s threat to the public.
Pictures from earlier in the week taken by NASA revealed that the fire’s size is so massive that its smoke can be seen from space.
California skies are shrouded in smoke as the #CampFire continues to rage. The fire has been fueled by dry conditions & Santa Ana winds. Our @NASAEarth satellite captured this image on Nov. 14—actively burning fires are shown as red points. https://t.co/ko4aGNKj5h pic.twitter.com/F4IdCYd4qY
— NASA (@NASA) November 16, 2018
The fires have also left some of the state’s most vulnerable members in a precarious position. Farmworkers in California are still hard at work despite their dangerous proximity to smoke, with most lacking the specialized N95 masks they need to protect them as they spend their days in the fields. Also in danger is the state’s homeless population, including thousands in San Francisco, where a staggering number of communities live on the streets.
For those city residents, the wildfires have exacerbated health issues like asthma and made it hard for them to breathe. Many are also without masks to help their breathing, even as the city says it is offering them masks wherever able.
Other health issues are also becoming a concern elsewhere — several shelters in Butte County are experiencing an outbreak of norovirus. The disease is highly contagious and often associated with consuming contaminated food or water and generally resulting in vomiting and diarrhea. More than 140 people have reportedly been impacted so far by the outbreak.
Amid the chaos, President Donald Trump announced that he intends to visit California this Saturday to meet with wildfire victims. The president has previously blamed California’s Democratic leadership and poor “forest management” for the fires. Experts largely agree that the wildfires are a natural occurrence that has greatly worsened thanks to mass construction in sensitive areas, along with climate change.
Trump’s visit comes days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also paid a visit to California, where he called the destruction “worse than any war zone I saw in Iraq.” He deflected the opportunity to connect the fires to climate change, however, arguing that there are “a lot of reasons for fires.”
Wildfire season in the western United States once spanned roughly five months out of the year on average. Today, those seasons now span around seven months to almost year-round.