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Wildfires and Zoom: A Loyola Student’s Experience Living Through the West Coast’s Fire Season While Trying To Learn Virtually

Courtesy of Paulina AragonThick smoke turned the sky orange in the Bay Area of California where Loyola senior Paulina Aragon lives.

Paulina Aragon had only recently moved to the Bay Area of California. Her sister, a sophomore, had moved out to Chicago and she just started taking classes online. But just as things were becoming routine, fire season hit. At first she had to live under the threat of evacuation as the fire neared her home. 

Then one day, Aragon said she woke up and the sky was blood orange. After that passed, she went days without seeing the sun as thick smoke enveloped her area. As she dealt with all of this, she still had to take 15 credit hours as a part of her advertising and public relations degree while continuing to work both off-campus and as a student worker at Loyola’s Undergraduate Admission Office.

Aragon is a senior at Loyola who lives in Dublin, CA with her parents and dog. She spoke to The Phoenix about the conditions the fire created in her area, as well as the impact it had on her and her family. 

Aragon described how one day the sky turned blood orange and said she doesn’t think the pictures do it justice. 

“It’s definitely unbelievable,” Aragon said. “I mean, I’ve personally never seen anything like this. Like, it was incredibly scary. It was like, ‘am I going to be attacked by zombies right now?’” 

Courtesy of Paulina Aragon

The orange sky only lasted a day but smoke still lingered in the area for several days, Aragon said. 

“From my house you can usually see the mountains and right now there’s no visibility of anything,” Aragon said.  “It’s almost like if it was foggy 24/7.” 

For a period of five days, from Sept. 10 to Sept. 15, air quality was considered unhealthy due to particles from the smoke lingering in the air, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the government agency that monitors air quality. 

Aragon never had to evacuate, as the fire was contained before it reached close to her home, but she and her family still had to prepare for the possibility. 

“We had bags packed and everything and we’re just kind of waiting on standby to see if we were going to have to leave or not, which is also something I’ve never experienced,” Aragon said. 

Courtesy of Paulina Aragon

Ten states are actively reporting large wildfires and close to seven and a half million acres have burned this year alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In California, there have been 29 confirmed fatalities, according to Cal Fire. In Oregon there have been eight fatalities as of Sept. 29, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, however, these numbers could rise as nine people are missing.

Throughout all of this, Aragon said she was still attending classes online. She said while she didn’t expect the fire to affect her studies, it did. Aragon described how being so far removed from her professors and classmates while going through this wore her down.

“After like, maybe two days of that it really started to hit me,” Aragon said. “And it’s just hard because I’m sitting through lectures. And obviously, my professors don’t know what I’m going through. You know, sitting in a class of like, 50 students, no one’s going to remember where you’re from or what you’re doing.” 

Aragon said her entire family has been affected by the conditions — but the family member who has taken the fires the hardest has been her dog. Because of the smoke, Aragon had to keep her dog inside, only taking him out once or twice a day. 

“He’s definitely been asking to go outside, he’ll actually open the door but we’re like ‘Sorry, buddy. You got to stay inside’” Aragon said. “He’s a pug. And I’m like, ‘you literally can’t even breathe as it is I’m not making you take in that smoke’”

Aragon expressed gratitude for all the firefighters who prevented the fire from reaching her home and hopes people are thinking about all those who had to evacuate. She said she and her family are out of immediate danger, she is still concerned about those who are still dealing with the fires. 

“My heart goes out to everybody that’s had to evacuate; firefighters, all first responders, everybody that’s on top of this,” Aragon said. “Kudos to them. This is scary as a citizen, I can’t imagine trying to fight it or trying to be a resource to people that had to evacuate.”

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