Here’s how Native Americans used controlled burns to maintain forests and why it’s needed now more than ever.


Fall weekends in Berkeley, California, have passed in a more subdued manner than years past.

Where throngs of college students once partied raucously, sororities and fraternities now are dark and quiet. Around the University of California’s campus, it’s clear school is underway. But where is everyone?

Most students have been staying inside – for weeks.

Like much of California, Berkeley students have faced overlapping crises that have limited options for learning, socializing and carrying out everyday life.

First, it was the coronavirus.The university scrapped its plan for a hybrid of in-person and online courses this fall when COVID-19 cases mushroomed in mid-July. Many students moved home. Those who stayed found pandemic restrictions in place on everything from large gatherings to indoor dining. 

Then, the fires came. California is battling the worst fire season in recorded history. Smoke has blanketed much of the state for weeks. 

That means physical exertion outside is not recommended, and prolonged exposure can lead to headaches, sore throats and worse. Weeks after thick smoke first sent Californians inside, fires have sparked again across California. The taste of smoke comes and goes, and at times, San Francisco is barely visible across the Bay.  

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Online classes have made the whole experience more isolating, UC Berkeley third-year undergraduate Katie Lyon told USA TODAY. Lyon, co-president of the Cal Hiking and Outdoors Society, has found it hard to practice self-care while staring at a screen all day, which is why she usually hikes “every opportunity that I get between my academic schedule.”

That’s become more difficult this semester. Wildfire season happens every year, and usually she and other members of CHAOS would travel on out-of-state trips when air quality worsened in the state.

“But because of COVID, you’re really not supposed to be driving long distances or going too far away from where you live,” she said. Although backpacking is still allowed, the wildfires, both in terms of air quality and the scorching flames, are making it difficult to find hiking opportunities close to home.

Cars drive along the Golden Gate Bridge under an orange, smoke-filled sky in San Francisco on Sept. 9. (Photo: HAROLD POSTIC, AFP via Getty Images)

The experience is not unique to California. As climate change evolves and fire season burns hotter and longer, the West Coast is increasingly blanketed in dangerous air for long stretches that are likely to change the fall semester for years to come.

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Several times this month, air quality in parts of the West Coast was rated as the worst in the world by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index.

The toll on residents’ health – specifically their respiratory systems – is mounting. Beyond physical effects, there’s also mental: The air quality extends