Sproul Plaza was empty Friday. Nov. 16 after the university canceled classes because of the bad air caused by the Camp Fire. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update, 1:05 p.m.: UC Berkeley has rescheduled Saturday’s Big Game which was to have happened at Memorial Stadium, due to the poor air quality. It will now take place on Saturday, Dec. 1 at 12 noon. At noon Friday the AQI was 246 in Berkeley according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District monitor at Aquatic Park.

Original story: Sproul Plaza was almost completely empty Friday morning as the thousands of students who normally rush through on their way to classes stayed home. There were no tables set up to advertise university clubs or people carrying cups of coffee or marching around with protest signs. An occasional biker or pedestrian wandered through, their faces covered with the air masks that are increasingly common in Berkeley.

The exception was a group of about 20 students who had lined up at 8 a.m. They had come because two Cal students who have a company called Air Mask, now incubating at Berkeley SkyDeck, had announced on Facebook that they were going to give away N95 masks, which health officials recommend as people walk outside in the “very unhealthy” air. Rudy Venguswarmy, a senior and the CEO of AirMask, and Josh Douglas, a junior and the company’s chief technical officer, don’t have their prototype available yet, but asked Uline, a supplier, for about 15 boxes of masks they could distribute.

Josh Douglas, the CTO of Air Mask, and other UC Berkeley students handing out free masks in front of Sproul Plaza this morning to help cope with the bad air quality from the Camp Fire. Berkeley, Nov. 16,  2018. Photo: Pete Rosos
Josh Douglas, the CTO of Air Mask, and other UC Berkeley students handing out free masks in front of Sproul Plaza this morning to help cope with the bad air quality from the Camp Fire. Berkeley, Nov. 16,  2018. Photo: Pete Rosos

Bihter Ozedirne, a third-year student at Berkeley Law, had not been able to find any masks but spotted Air Mask’s announcement on Facebook Wednesday night and signed up. She has been feeling the effects of breathing in air with high levels of particulate matter.

“I’m feeling pretty tired and have a headache and sore throat,” she said.

Josie Lieber, a first-year student, said she hadn’t intended at first to get a mask but as the smoky air has hung around she changed her mind. If she goes to the Big Game between Cal and Stanford on Saturday, she wants to wear a filter as she sits outside for three hours.

A masked jogger braves the bad air quality heading up Campanile Way. Nov. 16, 2018. Photo:: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ canceled classes late Thursday after the air quality index reading at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park read 247, a level the EPA categorizes as “very unhealthy.” She has not decided whether to cancel the football game. Officials did cancel the Thursday night men’s basketball game between Cal and Detroit Mercy. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Aquatic Park sensor reading at 10 a.m. on Friday was 206, still in the “very unhealthy” range.

Classes were also canceled at Berkeley Unified School District and Berkeley City College. City of Berkeley employees who usually work outside will be working inside on Friday, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. Building and fire inspections have been postponed. The city also postponed work sessions on its pedestrian master plan and capital improvement projects in the departments of Public Works and Parks, Recreation & Waterfront.

Most of UC Berkeley was closed on Friday. Photo: Ted Friedman

Berkeley has also closed King pool as well as some youth activities planned for outdoors. Berkeley is holding a CERT emergency training this weekend and it has been moved indoors.

“It’s safer to be indoors, wherever that is, whether that be a library, a school or home,” he said.

Saturday’s Farmer’s Market has also been canceled. Organizers of the Berkeley Half Marathon, scheduled for Sunday, canceled the event on Wednesday. Freight & Salvage canceled the performances scheduled for Friday and Saturday and Cal Performances canceled its Friday concert. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, BAMPFA, on Center Street, announced Friday night that it will remain open this weekend.

Will Sun, a local web developer, has posted an online calculator to show how the air people are breathing compares to smoking cigarettes. For example, two hours outdoors in Berkeley without a mask is the equivalent of smoking 4.2 cigarettes. Sun said his calculator is based on published studies on masks, air pollution and health harms.

People are leaving town in a quest for fresher air

The smoky air from the Camp Fire in Butte County has lingered over the Bay Area for more than a week now. Since schools are shuttered, a number of people are leaving town in search of fresh air.

Berkeleyside asked on Facebook if people were planning to get away and got a variety of answers:

“We packed up and left last night with our 5 yr old w/ severe asthma,” wrote one woman. “We’re in Incline Village and have met other East Bay families in the hotel.”

“Day trip tomorrow. Out to Half Moon Bay for some crab then coastal drive down to Santa Cruz. Hoping coast breezes will help,” said another.

“I tried to get my family a flight to San Diego last night. There was only 1 seat left on a few flights late at night tonight. So we’re just staying home. Air purifiers going.”

“I drove to Eugene last weekend to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday and was treated to four days of clean air. What a gift,” wrote one man.

Jessica Stiles has two school-age children who have not been able to play outside for a week. She decided to go visit her mother in San Diego for a few days.

“We are here now and it is such a relief to be able to go outside, to open the windows,” Stiles wrote to Berkeleyside. “My kids are going to an outdoor amusement park with my mom today. Later we will go to the beach. I am relieved to be in a place where it is safe to breathe but I feel almost guilty to have been able to get out while so many others in the Bay Area don’t have the opportunity to do so. My mind is there, thinking and worrying about you all, while my body is here in San Diego. We got one-way tickets because if possible, I want us to stay down here until the smoke has cleared, but who knows when that will be?” According to the National Weather Service, weather patterns are forecast to change in the middle of next week but not before. Winds from the southwest will blow Camp Fire smoke more towards Oregon and Nevada, rather than the Bay Area, and some rain is expected.
People lined up to buy N95 air masks at Berkeley Ace hardware on Friday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Where to find air masks

Berkeley Ace Hardware got 3,000 N95 masks around 10:45 a.m. on Friday morning and within minutes there was a line from the cash registers in the front of the store to the back, according to Jamie Carpenter, the manager. The store was limiting each customer to three masks. The store expects to get another 500 N95 masks with valves this afternoon, he told Berkeleyside in between constant phone calls.

ASUC, Cal’s student government association, will be handing out N95 masks from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Friday on Sproul Plaza and at North Gate, according to a tweet. A Cal identification card is required.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...