Not Everyone Can Escape the Smoke Outside. Here's Where to Get Help — and How to Help

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A view of the San Francisco skyline from Dolores Park in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated Aug. 30, 2021.

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Many Bay Area residents have taken refuge inside their homes as the state faces wildfires, heat and poor air quality. But these overlapping crises are not as easy to shelter from for communities that have already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic for over a year.

Some indoor spaces that typically provide clean, cool air for those who need it during fire season or heat waves, such as libraries, malls or community centers, may still be limited due to the pandemic. And for those who are unhoused or whose jobs require them to continue working outside, the hazardous air quality and heat are inescapable.

If this is you, help is available — and if you want to help these communities, opportunities are plentiful. Take it from Quinn Jasmine Redwoods, a transgender disabled plural activist, who says they were unsure how to help until they founded Mask Oakland, a volunteer network that distributes masks to those who need it.

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In 2017, Redwoods saw Bay Area people living outside without masks, unprotected from the smoky air caused by wildfires. On their way to buy a mask for their friend, they thought, "Why doesn't everyone have masks?" From there, they bought $300 worth of masks at a hardware store to distribute.

Now, in 2021, it's Mask Oakland's fifth fire season. Over the years, the group has helped distribute more than 240,000 masks, and provides face coverings geared toward stopping the spread of COVID in addition to masks to prevent respiratory damage from wildfire smoke.

"Once you start peeling back the veil, the amount of need will shock a lot of folks," Redwoods said. This year, they are asking: "Can we get people's imaginations to stretch past their own town or their particular AQI [air quality index] environment?"

The devastating Caldor fire is now presenting Mask Oakland with a new challenge: to extend the organization's reach beyond the Bay Area and get masks to people who need them in the Sierra.

“We're trying something new,” Redwoods said, of Mask Oakland’s current initiatives working with groups on the ground close to evacuation areas, such as Black Lives Matter El Dorado County. In partnership with several Sierra mutual aid groups like Rural Resistance Placerville, they've now formed the coalition Help Sierra Breathe to donate masks in the community surrounding Lake Tahoe.

The air quality in areas around the Caldor fire has shifted back and forth from unhealthy to hazardous over the course of the last few weeks. “People are disoriented, exhausted and scared,” Redwoods said. “We have the ability to buy more masks. But we don't have the funds right now. We need donations.”

Thus far, they’ve distributed 2,400 masks to Reno and 1,200 to Placerville in just the past weeks since the Caldor fire began.

“Someone came up to the table in Placerville yesterday and said, ‘This is like finding a gold nugget,’” Redwoods said. "The need is extreme."

While 2020's wildfires posed an especially urgent need to get masks into the community, Redwoods said the work is just as crucial this year.

"We encourage our volunteers to step forward, experience the energy and healing that can come from being actively engaged, but also recognize that we have to be in a rhythm of taking time and care and recovery," Redwoods said. "Abundance comes from collective power, and that's the solution to so many of these issues."

If you are unhoused or work outdoors, here are some ways to attempt to stay safe:

How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke if you can't stay inside

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the best way to reduce your risk of being affected by wildfire smoke is to seek shelter if possible. But if you must be outside, try to limit your physical activity and wear a mask if it's possible and safe to do so.

Remember: Although cloth masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, they won’t protect against the harmful particles in smoke that can be dangerous for your health. An N95 mask is the best way to protect yourself against wildfire smoke. In the Bay Area, connect with Mask Oakland; in the Sierra, connect with Black Lives Matter El Dorado County or Help Sierra Breathe.

More information on protecting yourself from toxic wildfire smoke.

For help — or to help — contact an organization or mutual aid network

Here's a list of Bay Area organizations doing on-the-ground work where you can get help or donate your time, money or supplies:

  • California Farmworker Foundation created a rent relief fund for farmworkers and collects data from communities to determine which services they need.
  • Common Humanity Collective is a mutual aid group of UC Berkeley scientists, activists, community leaders and "conscious neighbors."
  • Community Ready Corps provides a variety of community supports from food drives to neighborhood safety services in Oakland.
  • Corazón Healdsburg provides disaster relief to vulnerable families in northern Sonoma County.
  • Direct Action for Farmworkers is a volunteer-run collective that provides aid for undocumented and mixed-status farmworkers.
  • The Disability Justice Culture Club manages a mutual aid network serving the Bay Area's East Bay.
  • The East Oakland Collective provides food and supplies for unhoused communities and other populations who need them.
  • The Homeless Youth Alliance does outreach for young unhoused people in San Francisco.
  • Mask Oakland began as a grassroots initiative in 2017 to give masks to disabled and unhoused people and others who need them.
  • People’s Breakfast Oakland is providing hygiene packs and other resources for Black people experiencing homelessness in Oakland.
  • PODER organizes with Latino immigrant families and youth to provide mutual aid for those who need it.
  • PureAirOak is collecting funds to buy air purifiers for Oakland residents.
  • The Village in Oakland provides supplies and support for local encampments.

Here are some additional ways you can support Bay Area communities:

Serve the community where you live

If you want to help people right now, your own community is a good place to start.

Check in on your neighbors and ask if they’re in need of any assistance or supplies. You might consider doing this virtually — for example, on social media or a platform like Nextdoor. You could also call them or visit in person.

For those in your community who are unhoused, Jennifer Friedenbach, former executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, recommends giving people donations directly by asking what they need, or passing out premade packs with essential items like masks, hand sanitizer, food and water.

“It's just the basic things that people need to survive, they don't have access to during a pandemic, and it's exasperated by the fires and the heat,” Friedenbach said. “And so it's a bad situation for folks out there.”

Call your lawmakers

If you want your elected officials to do more for the needs of those in your community, you can contact your mayor, county supervisors or city department heads directly to make your voice heard, said Friedenbach.

One top concern for many advocates is the need for more shelter and permanent housing in the Bay Area.

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“We have, in the middle of this pandemic, thousands of people who are outdoors without access to water, bathrooms, showers," Friedenbach said. "These are really bad conditions that wouldn’t be acceptable in any war-torn refugee situation, let alone here in a rich city like San Francisco.”

The state's housing crisis also affects those who are housed but have been financially hit by the pandemic, including those who have to stay home to care for family members or who aren't working because of health concerns or unsafe working conditions.

Find contact information for your local elected officials.

See a list of organizations serving unhoused people around the Bay Area compiled by The San Francisco Chronicle.

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KQED's Lakshmi Sarah contributed to this report.