A Triple Threat in the West

California native and MPH candidate Harsimran Sidhu explores the cyclical nature of wildfires, COVID-19, and record-breaking temperatures and the devastation she's witnessing in her home state.

October 12, 2020

2020 is the year that will be ingrained in everyone’s memories for the same reason: COVID-19. For those on the west coast, however, this year is memorable not only because of the pandemic but as the year with the worst wildfire season yet and record-breaking temperatures registered during heat waves. The pandemic, unusually high temperatures, and persistent wildfires, or the triple threat as I like to call them, are each feeding off the other and further adding to 2020’s mayhem. And while the deadly effects of climate change are present across the entire country and world, those living in California, Oregon, and Washington are coming face to face with the impacts of a changing climate on a daily basis and are forced to consider them as new norms.

Over the course of shelter-in-place orders, I have been living in my home state of California. Here, the magnitude and destructive capacity of the current wildfire season is surprising many natives, especially in hard-hit areas such as the city of Paradise, which was completely destroyed in 2018 and is now threatened again in 2020. Never did I expect my own neighborhood in the suburban Bay Area community to be put under fire evacuation advisory orders. Nor did I expect the dry lightning and thunderstorms which ignited multiple fires across Northern California, or the days this summer when temperatures reached above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This year, California recorded its hottest day and arguably the world’s highest temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat is further desiccating trees in many of California’s famous national forests, preparing them to serve as the perfect fuel for spreading the already uncontrollable wildfires. While climate change is a crisis on its own, it is also fueling the fire for our current health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pollution caused by burning forests has greatly added to the risk of respiratory distress, a primary symptom of COVID-19. In September, air quality index apps became the new weather app for those living in areas such as San Francisco, which was enveloped by smoke and ash, creating an apocalyptic bright yellow glow in the sky. The air pollution is making people cough more and putting sensitive groups, such as the elderly and immunocompromised, at a higher risk for respiratory complications. For those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, frequent coughing due to the smoke can make them more contagious, exacerbating their symptoms.

At times I am not sure if I am wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 or from the suffocating smoke, or both. 

Additionally, the fires, which have burned down thousands of homes across the west coast and displaced families, are creating a housing crisis in the midst of a pandemic. With the looming threat of the deadly coronavirus and efforts to keep the spread low, it is no longer feasible to safely provide shelter for thousands of displaced individuals in convention centers or stadiums. It is not just physically challenging to follow social distancing guidelines when entire cities have burned to the ground, but also emotionally tolling for those whose lives have taken a drastic turn.

The smoke from wildfires also tends to sit in the Central Valley which is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges, trapping and circulating air pollution. COVID-19 infection rates are also higher in the Central Valley which is home to many people of color and immigrants who are disproportionately infected with the virus. One of the essential worker populations in this area who kept working shoulder to shoulder throughout the multiple heat waves that hit California this summer, throughout the pandemic, and throughout the smoke is farmworkers. This population helps feed America, and these workers cannot work from home or choose to stay indoors. As a child of immigrants and knowing that my mother’s first job in America was as a farmworker, this fact hit close to home. The current work conditions that farmworkers endure appall me. I am compelled to dive deeper and learn more about how such harsh conditions became the normal work environment for one of our most essential populations and how minority groups continue to be the hardest hit in almost any public health crisis. By looking at several current crises from a public health viewpoint, I can see how they are intertwined; the fires and heat waves are consequences of climate change, exasperating the current pandemic.

While the pandemic may be old news in a few years, the cyclical nature of wildfires and heatwaves will continue to threaten California and other west coast states. Although there is no single solution to stop climate change, these states need to implement strategies to be able to live around wildfires and heatwaves. Strategies such as prescribed burns, which is also an Indigenous peoples’ tradition has been banned in California for over a century but is now being considered as a method to control the destruction of wildfires. At the same time, bigger steps need to be taken with industries that burn fossil fuels which contribute to climate change and lead to higher temperatures and dryer forests.

Throughout my coursework at Columbia Public Health, the general theme that connects the various classes and departments is the emphasis on a need for systemic changes. We cannot simply tackle one issue or resolve one crisis while ignoring others.

A fundamental change in our society has to occur to conquer the myriad public health crises we face on a global scale. Politicians or scientists can't achieve systemic change alone. A collaborative effort has to be made to lessen the effects of this triple threat, to protect worker’s rights, to prevent a housing crisis, and to prevent the further spread of a virus. By combining the perspectives and expertise of public health professionals, climate change activists, and policymakers, we can get one step closer to alleviating the deadly effects of climate change and the public health emergencies that stem from this global threat.

Harsimran Sidhu is a 2021 MPH candidate in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health. She received her BS in Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior from the University of California, Davis.