Preparing for wildfire smoke during the coronavirus pandemic

19 August 2020

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USA – University Health Services Medical Director Dr. Anna Harte, Executive Director of Environment, Health and Safety Patrick Goff and Director of the Office of Emergency Management Alicia Johnson sent the following message to the campus community on Wednesday:

We are writing today to share information on preparedness actions, health considerations, and resources with regards to the most likely risk (in addition to COVID-19) that is coming our way — wildfire smoke. Northern California and UC Berkeley have been heavily impacted by wildfire smoke during the last three fall semesters and are currently experiencing air quality that is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

When wildfire smoke threatens our community, UC Berkeley monitors air quality and provides updates on the Air Quality (AQI) and actions. You can monitor AQI at

With the potential of wildfires, PG&E has initiated a public safety power shutdown program where it may be necessary for them to turn off electricity in the interest of public safety. They understand the importance of keeping power on, especially given the current stay-at-home orders, but you should plan for a potential power shutdown. Go to the PG&E PSPS website for more information.

Health effects

During smoke events, fine particulates suspended in the air are the main harmful pollutant. The particulates can make anyone sick, even someone who is healthy. If you would like to know more about the symptoms go to the CDC site on wildfire smoke. We encourage you to see your medical provider if you experience wildfire smoke related symptoms. Please note that the risk of COVID-19 complications can potentially increase with poor air quality.

Limit exposure

When air quality worsens, it is best to take steps to limit exposure to it and COVID-19. If you must be outside, minimize strenuous activity. To the extent possible, stay indoors where air is filtered and keep windows and doors closed. Last year, UC Berkeley designated cleaner air facilities that had better air recirculation and filtration systems to keep smoke out. Unfortunately, with COVID-19 risk, we do not want people to congregate in buildings where air is recirculated. As such, UC Berkeley will not be offering cleaner air facilities as it did last year. Instead, people will be instructed to stay at home where they should close windows and to the extent possible, recirculate air and use a portable air cleaner with HEPA filtration to reduce particulate exposure in a specific room or space. If you don’t have the funds to buy a HEPA filtered air purifier, here is a do-it-yourself idea to make an air filter that may improve air quality in your space.

Respirators and face coverings

Use of cloth face coverings slow the spread of COVID-19 but offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke.

Use of particulate respirators such as N-95 masks may filter out some of the particulate matter and offer some protection from SARS CoV-2, but they do not filter harmful chemicals found in smoke. They can also increase the work of breathing, which can be harmful for people with significant underlying heart or lung conditions. Please consult a clinician before using an N-95 and note that they might be unavailable as frontline healthcare providers rely on them during the pandemic.

Campus actions and air quality benchmarks

Since last year, UC Berkeley has improved its resilience and response to wildfire smoke in several ways including:

  • Installing air sensors at multiple locations around campus that improved local real-time data to better assess local air quality conditions.
  • Inspected and inventoried our mechanical ventilation systems and upgraded HVAC system filters with more protective high efficiency filters.
  • Helped develop and adopt the systemwide standard AQI-Based Decision-Making Matrix.

When the AQI exceeds 150 for a sustained period of time, UC Berkeley will notify our community of the situation via CalMessage and either reassign employees who work outdoors for more than one hour per shift, or make available N-95 respirators for voluntary use by outdoor workers and those employees who work in unfiltered buildings. A list of buildings with with unfiltered air is provided on our Wildfire Smoke / Air Quality resource page.

When the AQ1 exceeds 200 for a sustained period of time, UC Berkeley will suspend outdoor work unless it is absolutely necessary, continue to provide N-95 respirators for voluntary use by outdoor workers and those employees who work in unfiltered buildings, cancel or restructure classes, and delay, postpone or relocated outdoor athletic activities and events involving activity. Other curtailment of operations will also occur.

In the past years, the campus addressed ventilation systems and where appropriate, decreased the intake of outdoor air and recirculated indoor air to limit bringing smokey air into a building. With the pandemic, this option may not be initiated as not to risk increased viral loads.

Additional Information

For more information, useful links, and updated information see our Wildfire Smoke and Air Quality resource page.

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