Is Urban Prepared for an Increasingly Hazy Future?

Over the past few years, Northern California has been ravaged by wildfires, leaving some regions devastated and others gasping for air. Though the state’s fire seasons are expected to worsen each year, the Urban School is prepared for the threats that they pose.

Driven by climate change, California’s intensifying fire seasons have struck blazes unlike the state has seen before. In 2018 alone, Northern California saw its largest-ever wildfires in terms of both acreage and fatalities, fires powerful enough to melt boats on a lake. Still, according to Urban science teacher and Green Team leader Samantha Littlejohn, changing conditions will “lead to [even] more intense fire seasons” than California has already experienced.

“Snowmelt is melting earlier [as] a result of the trend of warmer temperatures, so that’s causing a longer fire season,” Littlejohn said. “This year might be a little more of an anomaly in the trend of greater, more intense fires.”

This escalation of California’s fire seasons brought record-setting poor air qualities to the Bay Area last November and even forced the Urban School to close for a day. With the air quality topping 270 AQI during the aforementioned period, it is important to consider whether Urban’s systems are equipped to handle similarly dangerous conditions in 2019. 

David Coffman, Urban’s facilities director, believes the school is prepared. Coffman’s job is to oversee the safety and operationality of Urban, and the dangerous air quality brought by 2018’s fire season was a rude awakening. Coffman said, “Until last year, after the Northern California fires that we had, [air quality] was never an issue.” 

He explained that the school’s current approach to dealing with bad air quality is through “a MERV 8 air filtration system… which will stop most particles that would be held hazardous.”

Though this filtration system is extremely efficient, it is not fully equipped to handle the air on days with dangerously high particulate — days like those we saw last year. It relies on relatively clean outside air to replace the CO2-filled air used inside Urban’s buildings. “If you’re bringing in bad air, it’s not necessarily a good thing,” Coffman said.

According to Coffman, the only way to keep the school open in times of dangerous air quality would be to upgrade to what he calls a charcoal filtration system, which is recommended for air quality as poor as what San Francisco experienced last year. However, he believes this system is not worth the immense financial investment it would require.

“We’ve gathered information from other schools all throughout San Francisco, and we got kind of a rundown on exactly what everybody did during these times,” Coffman said. “A lot of schools opted for the filtration systems that were charcoal, some just shut down their systems.” Urban decided to leave its systems on until the particulate became exceedingly high. Coffman then looked to a San Francisco facilities group he works with, which thought it a good idea to “shut the systems down… rather than just bringing the air.” 

Nonetheless, Urban refrained from upgrading to a charcoal filtration system, as even improved filtration would not be able to prevent the inherent dangers of unclean air. For example, commuting to and from school and walking between buildings would continue to pose a hazardous threat. Coffman said, “Most of the time [the particulate] gets that high, the best thing to do is just have people stay home.”

While Urban is prepared for poor air quality in the future, Littlejohn remains wary of the fact that these fire seasons will continue to worsen. In her eyes, there remains only one way to protect the community, and it lies not with which filtration systems we choose. “The biggest thing you can do is learn about climate, ask questions, engage with issues,” she said. “And then, use your voice.”