Most people were stuck in gridlock traffic for many hours, as 27,000 people tried to flee Paradise simultaneously. Evacuation routes were consistently burned by the approaching fire. (Photo by Mikel Frye)

College campuses close due to smoke; fires cause evacuation to Sacramento (video included)

While fires were raging at the northern and southern ends of California, the middle was blanketed by smoke, with air quality indices (AQI) rising into the 200s and 300s in areas hundreds of miles away from the Butte County blazes.

One such area was Berkeley. On Friday, Nov. 16, students at the University of California, Berkeley unknowingly started their Thanksgiving breaks early. 

According to Cal senior Emma Brown, ’15, students didn’t realize the smoke had caused an extended break until Nov. 18, when Berkeley announced class cancellations for Nov. 19 and 20. 

As students stayed, stores sold out of N95 respirator masks, Brown said. 

“They ran out in the stores and health centers — and people were getting very mad,” Brown said. 

“It was intense.” 

According to PE director Michelle Myers, N95 respirator masks work via a filter that keeps the fine particulate matter (of either 2.5 or 10 nanometers) from getting through to the lungs.

This fine particulate matter includes not only the remains of trees and grassy fields but also metal, tin, aluminum, plastic, cars, fuel and gas lines.

“It’s everything that burned,” she said. 

“Until (firemen) got the gas shut off, a lot of homes had gas flames going out with natural gas leaking everywhere.”

But the same smoke, as well as the subsequent class cancellations that affected Berkeley students, wasn’t really a surprise to students at the University of California, Davis, according to Davis freshman Pria Nijhar, ’18.

“Literally everyone rides bikes,” Nijhar said. “Since everyone predominantly uses bikes to get around, the smoke had a huge impact on everyone’s health.

“Everyone could feel it. The air outside was so bad.”

To keep its students from the outside air, UC Davis canceled classes on Nov. 13.

According to Nijhar, the school emailed students that classes would resume on Nov. 14; however, after “receiving a ton of backlash,” the school sent out another email saying that classes were still canceled and that they had only a limited supply of masks for students. 

Libraries were closed, Nijhar said, and she, like everyone else, hung out with friends. 

But some campuses and majors were more affected.

Lara Kong, ’15, a music therapy major and flautist at the University of Pacific (UOP), had both her concert schedule and personal life thrown off by the smoke. 

“I can’t produce a great sound,” she said. “You’re breathing more often, so you’re not breathing with the phrase lines or the music.” 

Kong also said she had asthma problems resurface after five years. 

“Breathing was hard,” she said. “I started noticing that I couldn’t hold the phrases I usually am able to hold.

“Then I couldn’t breathe going up the stairs to my apartment, so I re-ordered an inhaler because all of mine are expired.”

Breathing problems affected all the musicians, prompting professors to change students’ schedules.

“Over the past week (of Nov. 12), they started cutting rehearsals shorter,” Kong said. 

“First, rehearsals were ended 15 minutes early — now (Nov. 17), we haven’t heard from the band director, and we had to cancel our concert this weekend.”

Kong explained that music majors have two concerts per semester, and this was the second of the two.

“If you miss a concert, you automatically fail the class,” she said. “They might understand if you’re really sick, but you’re required to make it.”

According to Kong, that concert was never rescheduled. After coming back to campus Nov. 26, Kong heard from her music professor that they were to turn in their music and they would not be having a concert.

In addition, she said, seniors’ and juniors’ recitals — an integral part of all music majors’ grades — were canceled. 

However, music students weren’t the only ones affected. 

According to Kong, who is also in the pep band that plays for basketball and women’s volleyball games, the sports teams’ schedules were impacted as well. 

“All games were moved off campus last minute,” she said.

The UOP men’s soccer tournament got relocated to Fresno; women’s volleyball was moved to St. Mary’s College in Moraga.; the women’s basketball team got sent to Stanford. 

And even though UOP notifies its students about cancellations via a text and email notification service called Pacific Connect, Kong said students are not always made aware of concert and game changes because of the immensity of events in need of rescheduling. 

Although more impacted than Brown and Nijhar, Kong said she still enjoyed the days off. 

“It’s been really calm but also a kind of weird not having any stuff to do,” Kong said. 

“College doesn’t just get canceled.”

—By Chardonnay Needler

· · ·

Mikel Frye, a close friend of sophomore history teacher Bill Crabb, evacuated her home and lost her family business on the same day. She was also nine months pregnant.

Nov. 14 began as a normal day for Frye, but after getting her kids ready for school, she saw two missed calls from her husband and a voicemail, which was weird for her. When she listened to the voicemail, he told her that Paradise was on fire and he was leaving his mom’s house.

“When I finally heard from my husband again, because the cell phone service was bad because the cell phone towers were burning, he said that he was stuck in gridlock traffic trying to get out,” Frye said. “Most of the main roads were closed, and police officers and firefighters were redirecting people multiple times.”

When Frye’s husband finally did make it to his escape route, a firefighter told him to continue driving. He arrived in Sacramento five hours later, but many of Frye’s friends and family were trapped by the fires, so they came to Frye’s house, “smelling like smoke,” she said.  Later, she saw an update that the fire was moving quickly toward her side of town, prompting Frye to evacuate.

“Around midnight, I packed my necessary items and kids and drove away, not knowing if we would ever see our house again,” Frye said.

“We passed cars burning in the street and power poles on fire. All our familiar places we’ve visited since childhood were burning as we passed. It felt like a war zone, and we could feel the heat of the fires through our car doors.

“Our lives have been changed forever.”

“When an evacuation route finally opened up, Elgin, my husband, drove through fire on both sides of Clark road — one of the major roads in Paradise,” Frye said. “The fires in the video are homes and businesses burning. The video was shot in the morning, but the smoke was so thick from the fire that it completely blocked out the sun.”

From there, Frye drove to Crabb’s house in Sacramento, where, she said, he “graciously” let her and her family stay for several days while they waited for the fires to die down and the smoke to clear out.

A few days later, Frye said the stress caused by the fires started giving her panic attacks and migraines.

Frye ended up returning to a standing house; however, her business, which sold used car parts, was destroyed.

Frye said the business, “Viking Used Auto Parts,” was their childhood dream, but in a matter of hours, it was gone.

Frye is starting to rebuild her business, but she said it will be an “arduous process.” Frye said she is lucky that her friends, family are safe and healthy. Her baby girl Kiernan Rose Frye was born on Nov. 23 at 2:27 a.m. in Enloe Hospital in Chico.

—By Sanjana Anand

Originally published in the Dec. 4 edition of the Octagon, now including online-exclusive information.

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