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‘Everything moved so fast’: Ravaging wildfires burden Brown students studying out west

Some students driven away from home, others stay put as wildfires sear communities

Noah Hoffman ’22, a Resumed Undergraduate Education student, was relaxing at his home in Medford, Oregon Sept. 8, preparing for the first day of a new semester. Little did he know that less than 24 hours later, the southern Oregon Almeda fire would force him and his partner to pack their belongings and evacuate the state.

Massive wildfires and brutal heat waves are burning across California and Oregon, creating enormous clouds of smoke and ash and disrupting the lives of millions of residents. 

The mixture of high heat and winds brought the smoke all the way to the skies above the University campus Sept. 14, according to The Providence Journal. Meanwhile, the air pollution has directly impacted University students living in parts of the west, and some have even been forced to relocate. 

“Everything moved so fast,” Hoffman said. “We ended up just driving out of there with everything really valuable. … We were only going to drive a little ways away, but the smoke got so bad, there was no chance we were going to stop.” 

“You couldn’t breathe,” he added.

Hoffman is currently residing at his sister’s and brother-in-law’s home in Idaho. He’s sleeping in his van at night, but uses the house to attend online classes during the day. Despite the hectic situation, he expressed gratitude that he was able to escape the worst of the damage. “It's a lot going on around here, and it's a little hard to focus, but compared to what it could be, I feel very fortunate,” he said.

Even students who haven’t physically had to relocate are being negatively impacted by the poor air quality, which is forcing residents to stay indoors. These circumstances induce another degree of isolation on top of pre-existing COVID-19 social distancing requirements, which can have an additional emotional toll on students already struggling with reduced social interactions. 

Annette Izumi ’23, who is studying remotely from Los Angeles, California, feels “confined” by not being able to hike or partake in other outdoor activities.

“I feel that a lot of my social interactions have been limited,” Izumi said. “COVID already limited them to begin with, so I just feel extra isolated.”

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="650"]

A mixture of heat and high winds brought smoke from fires burning in the west to the east coast, including Providence skies, last week.[/caption] 

Scientists believe that these wildfires are the result of climate change caused by human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gasses. Climate largely controls the frequency and intensity of these fires, according to Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences James Russell, who co-authored a study on the effects of climate change on wildfires last year. Climate change not only increases the lightning strikes that often start fires but also promotes arid conditions that lead to their quick and uncontrollable spread.

“What’s happening in the western U.S. is particularly symptomatic of climate change,” Russell said, as this “is a region of the world that is getting much warmer and much drier, faster.”

These disasters make climate change, sometimes thought of as an issue for future generations, very present and very real to those affected. 

“I think if people on the East Coast could experience the apocalyptic feel of the smoke and the fires, the climate policy in this country would look very different,” Hoffman said.  

The two students interviewed by The Herald who are living in this environment struggle to go about their normal lives and look to their communities for support and guidance. 

“I think that we’ll be able to return to some level of normalcy,” Hoffman said, but he added that “the community is going to be in shock after what happened, and it's going to be a different place to go back to.”

“I’m going to be looking for ways to help the community and do what I can,” Hoffman said.



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