As students face the compounding stresses of school and the coronavirus, many students’ hometowns are now ablaze as fires in the Pacific Northwest are happening from the Mexican border to the Canadian-Washington border.
The fires have claimed hundreds of homes, forced thousands of people to evacuate, and dozens of people have died.
According to enrollment numbers reported in spring 2019, California, Washington and Oregon are home to almost a quarter of Boise State undergraduates and each of those states have dozens of fires burning currently.
As of 2019, Boise State’s population consists of 17,885 Idaho residents, 3,224 California residents, 1,705 Washington residents and 581 Oregon residents.
Courtney O’Connor, a junior business major, is from Sacramento, California where the fires have been fatal to the area. A dark orange glow consumes the sky of O’Connor’s home and she worries about her family’s safety.
“My family has actually had a really hard time with it,” O’Connor said. “As anybody would say, it’s depressing to see your town covered in smoke.”
O’Connor’s family has not had to evacuate, but she worries they will not be able to stay much longer. O’Connor’s grandmother, who also lives in Sacramento, is undergoing hospice care, and the smoke from the fires is affecting her health.
“Growing up in California, I experienced a lot of fires, but I have never seen anything like this,” O’Connor said. “You couldn’t even see the sky and everything was dark orange in the middle of the day, it looked like doomsday in the photos I have seen and the photos my parents have been sending me.”
Jules Hebert, a junior finance major, is from Bonney Lake, Washington. She flew back home to visit her family, unaware that nearby fires meant she would not be able to leave her house the entire trip.
“It was hard to first get acclimated because the night I came home the fires right around where I live were at their worst,” Hebert said. “The power was out everywhere for days and tons of people were evacuating.”
Hebert said that her community does not have restrictions on outdoor activity but is advising residents not to go outside for any reason, especially without a N-95 mask to protect from the smoke.
Luke Montrose, an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Health, wrote an article for the Boise State News titled, “What’s in that wildfire smoke, and why is it so bad for your lungs?”
According to Montrose, the smoke from wildfires contains thousands of individual compounds that vary in size. Some of them are so small that they can travel past our defenses and into our lungs. Those particles have the ability to affect even the healthiest lungs and can be especially dangerous for more vulnerable groups.
“For someone with lung damage or respiratory illness, moderate levels of smoke particulate can exacerbate respiratory problems,” Montrose wrote.
With fires blazing in California, Oregon, Washington and now Idaho, there is information that some people may not be aware of regarding the wildfires.
Emily Wakild from the Latin American and Environmental History Department at Boise State said that climatic factors like drought, high temperatures, winds and destruction of wildlands has made this year’s fires in western states particularly dangerous.
“There are several incidents in history where the size of the burns have been equivalent to some of todays; Idaho’s Big Burn of 1910 burned three million acres for example, about the total today,” Wakild said. “But the number, the size, the spread, the smoke and many other factors make this year’s fires dramatic and unprecedented.”