California Wildfires Force Evacuations and Air Quality Precautions


Tripp Robbins

Wildfires in California have emerged from a series of lightning strikes, resulting in deteriorating air quality and the evacuations of some Menlo community members. Photo courtesy of Tripp Robbins.

Sylvie Venuto, News Editor

Wildfires have burned over 314,000 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties as of Aug. 22 since Aug. 17, according to CAL FIRE, resulting in several Menlo community members being forced to evacuate from their homes. Those working on campus have also had to take precautions against the poor air quality.

The CZU August Lightning Complex Fires resulted from lightning strikes and have caused three confirmed injuries as well as the evacuation of over 22,000 people, according to CAL FIRE’s Aug. 21 CZU August Lightning Complex Fires briefing.

Middle School English Department Chair Maura Smith was notified on Aug. 18 that she, her husband and their two dogs would be required to evacuate their home in the Middleton Tract community next to Portola State Park in La Honda. The evacuation notice was delivered by California Highway Patrol helicopters via loudspeaker. 

Smith and her family have evacuated to her brother’s house in Santa Cruz, a plan that they had put into motion on Aug. 17 before the order to evacuate. While deciding what to bring as she evacuated, Smith was “practical and sentimental but […] left behind many beautiful possessions.”

Smith has struggled with her two dogs (one a puppy and the other recovering from knee replacement surgery), who are having difficulties adjusting to her brother’s foreign house. In addition, information that is specific to Smith’s community rather than general coverage of the fires has been scarce, making it difficult to determine the impact the fires have had on her community.

Smith noted that the experience of the fire has brought her closer to her neighbors. CAL FIRE announced a focus on evacuation rather than containment of the fire on Aug. 20, which angered Smith and her community members and caused them to look toward “self-reliance” as a way of overcoming the fire, Smith said.

Overall, being forced to evacuate her home has deepened Smith’s appreciation for it. “The fires have also reinforced how much I love my home, how my 680-square-foot, hundred-year-old cabin in the redwoods is my ideal of comfort. I want to go home more than anything,” she said.

In addition to causing evacuations, the fires have created deteriorating air quality around the Bay Area and Menlo’s campus, according to PurpleAir. Air quality peaked at 182 inside of Stent Hall on Aug. 18, nearing the Very Unhealthy level and meaning that “everyone may begin to experience health effects if they are outside for over 24 hours,” according to PurpleAir. 

As a result of the poor air quality, Upper School Dean of Students Tony Lapolla and Health Services Coordinator Joan Barada have sent emails to the Menlo School faculty and staff, directing them to shut windows, close doors, wear masks at all times and limit time spent outside.

In addition, supply pickups for the school year were postponed on Aug. 23 at 5:00 pm due to the “unsafe” air quality via an email from the school.