The Color of Climate

California Is on Fire and Choking Out Its Most Vulnerable

As California wildfires send smoke all over the United States, activists scramble to help vulnerable populations

Photo illustration, source: China News Service/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

On a recent Tuesday evening in August, trans disability activist Quinn Jasmine Redwoods drove into Oakland to buy 12,000 KN95 respirator masks.

Redwoods is the founder of Mask Oakland, a group that collects and distributes masks primarily to Oakland’s houseless population, which is disproportionately Black, and other housed people of color. They started the group in 2017, when blazes were burning throughout Wine Country and the smoke from those fires drifted into the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In order to get these 12,000 KN95 respirator masks, Redwoods had to rely on an informal network of community members, activists, organizers, politicians, and business people they’ve built up over the past few years. Rebecca Kaplan, a city councilwoman from Oakland, heard from a local businessman that someone in his community of small-business owners had gotten hold of 12,000 masks. Kaplan connected Redwoods to Andy Duong, a local businessman who works for a waste solutions company, who arranged the pickup.

Redwoods says that people have been calling them from around the Bay Area looking for masks since the fires broke out on August 18. That’s likely because community leaders and activists know what their communities were already up against — disproportionate exposure to air pollution and hazardous waste and death from Covid-19 — before the fires hit.

But 12,000 masks are just a drop in the bucket for how many are needed — N95s are still in high demand and short supply in the U.S. Oakland has approximately 4,071 houseless people, but the masks need to be replaced over time. Also, people who don’t have homes wear the masks more, which quickly reduces their effectiveness, Redwoods points out. Then there are thousands of other essential workers throughout the Bay Area who have to travel through the smoke to work. It’s projected that this year’s fire season will last through September, though recent fire seasons have lasted through October.

“We’re experiencing natural disasters on an ever increasing cycle, and we’re in this global pandemic.”

That was the case in 2017, which was a historic fire season, the most destructive on record at the time. The 2018 fire season was also historic — it supplanted 2017’s as the most destructive and also became the most deadly on record. That year, Mask Oakland distributed over 85,000 masks throughout the Bay Area according to the group’s website. Then, 2019 was “relatively mild” in terms of wildfires according to California’s state fire agency, Cal Fire.

But this is 2020, and a variety of ecological crises that climate scientists and environmentalists have warned us about for decades are intersecting and adding up. The pandemic is hitting on top of air pollution, hazardous waste, hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires. In California, wildfire season has only just begun, and the state is already on track to break the 2018 record for acres burned (over 1.6 million as of publication).

“We’re experiencing natural disasters on an ever-increasing cycle, and we’re in this global pandemic,” Redwoods tells OneZero. “And I think that at Mask Oakland, where we try to build community power to help people breathe, unfortunately, our current levels of resources are outmatched.”

Back when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the U.S., Redwoods contacted their usual suppliers. But they were sold out of N95s, the most effective type of mask. Eventually, they got donations of surgical masks, which protect from the coronavirus but not wildfire smoke. Even months after the pandemic began in the U.S., N95 and KN95 masks are scarce and expensive. (The two masks are functionally similar; one reflects the U.S. standard, the other the Chinese standard.)

The wildfires burning throughout California have spread smoke throughout the West, creating unhealthy air quality in places like Idaho and Colorado. It’s adding to the poor air quality in poor communities and communities of color, the latter of which disproportionately bear the brunt of air pollution created by white Americans. And exposure to wildfire smoke, like exposure to tear gas, can trigger physiological responses that can spread deadly diseases. Redwoods says a lot of the clientele they distribute masks to already have heart and lung problems that are linked to the types of pollution that are ubiquitous in their communities, like car and diesel truck emissions, or emissions or water contamination from industrial sites.

Redwoods notes that folks shouldn’t be “pushed further onto the edge by unnecessary exposure to smoke.”

The fact that these deadly wildfire seasons and the smoke they bring with them recur almost annually has pushed Redwoods to see what they do as climate adaptation.

“Climate adaptation is based on confronting denial and facing reality,” Redwoods says. “And, really, that’s what I think we’re looking at here when we’re talking about responding to these fires like this on a regular basis.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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