• Liv Jules

The wildfire epidemic and how the City of Angels made him sick

Nik Uka sits outside his home in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, while he reflects on his trip to California. The wildfires in California made him sick while visiting in 2019.

The weather usually affects our day-to-day lives. However, we do not typically think about how it will make us feel that day. Unfortunately, this was the case for Nik Uka, while living in California.

Uka lived in Manhattan Beach, California in 2019. Manhattan Beach is located in Los Angeles county, where wildfires have flourished in the past and present.

“I have family there, so I decided to go for the summer,” said Uka.

Nik Uka looking at the storefronts (left) and skateboarding (right) on the beach on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 (left) and Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019 (right).

According to the Insurance Information Institute, there were 50,477 California wildfires in 2019. Since January, there have already been 47,057 this year.

“I knew I would be back in Michigan soon,” Uka said. “I figured I would have nothing but good experiences ahead of me if I went there for the summer.”

Nik Uka walks into his house in Sterling Heights, Michigan while talking about his time living in California on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. He lived there for the summer in 2019.

As we know, weather is unpredictable. In California, it is almost impossible to know what tomorrow will feel like. Or what it will look like.

Hiking in Los Angeles, California on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, with dry air and dead leaves (left). Outside Nik Uka's home in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 with vibrant leaves (right). The California air is poor due to the ongoing wildfires.

“I realized very early into my time there, that each day is going to look different,” Uka said. “Some days the sun was shining, and other days there was an orange, gray tint in the atmosphere.”

On top of a mountain in Los Angeles, California on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019 as Nik Uka was climbing the Hollywood sign. This day had clear skies, unlike some that had an orange tint due to the wildfires.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful there, but the difference in how it used to be is concerning.” Uka said.

California wildfires are vastly spread out, but scatter very fast. With the ongoing droughts that are hard to manage in the state, it’s becoming worse, as the effects on climate change start to expand.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, climate change increases the odds of worsening drought. Although a fire needs a spark to ignite it, the California wildfires are climate-driven.

“On the brightside, we never had to evacuate during my time there,” Uka said. “Although sometimes the air quality would get so bad that they would send out an Emergency SOS.”

Nik Uka takes a photo of the clear pathway while on his hike in Los Angeles, California on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. The sky was starting to become a different hue this day due to wildfires.

According to The New York Times, the link between climate change and wildfires is impossible to separate.

“It wasn’t until after my first month there I started feeling sick,” Uka said. “I didn’t think anything of it at first, until I realized each day I never felt better or worse.”

Exposing oneself to poor air quality will result in symptoms, primarily mocking the cold and flu.

Outside of Nik Uka's house on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 in Sterling Heights, Michigan as the fall season starts to roll in. The sky is visibly clear, and the leaves started changing.

According to UC Berkeley, breathing in wildfire smoke and unhealthy air will affect someone’s health and wellbeing. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and particles of burning materials, which will make anyone sick.

Some symptoms one may feel include:

  • Coughing

  • Trouble breathing normally

  • Stinging eyes

  • A scratchy throat

  • Runny nose

  • Irritated sinuses

  • Wheezing and shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Headaches

  • An asthma attack

  • Tiredness

  • Fast heartbeat

Uka experienced cold-like symptoms.

Nik Uka walks towards his home in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 while reflecting on his illness in California. He was in California in 2019 where he fell ill due to wildfires.

“I had an ongoing dry cough, runny nose and headaches almost every day,” Uka said. “The more I exposed myself, the more I became used to feeling that way.”

Uka was still able to explore the "City of Angels", despite the conflict in his prior expectations.

Nik Uka stands as he finishes his hike in Los Angeles, California on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The air was looking good, but he was experiencing cold-like symptoms due to California's near wildfires.

“Luckily, we still were able to go sightseeing, and hiking up near the Hollywood sign,” Uka said.

“I couldn’t help but think if I was feeling so terrible in three months,” Uka said. “I can’t imagine how my family is feeling, living like this every day.”

Nik Uka's sister's, 9, bike lays against the house in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. She was also on the California trip, but experienced minimal to no symptoms of poor air quality.

California has a history of wildfire outbreaks since before the 1950s.

“At this point, they must be used to feeling sick all the time,” Uka said. “I just worry that it will never get better for them."

Uka has family of all ages living in Los Angeles county.

Nik Uka (right) and his father (left) at their home in Manhattan Beach, California on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. They shared a place with their extended family for three months while the wildfires were slowly spreading.

“I can’t imagine my family getting used to coughing every day, having a sore throat every week and stepping on trash every time they walk the beach they call home...” Uka said.

Nik Uka sitting outside his home while talking about the negative side effects from his trip on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 in Sterling Heights, Michigan. He stayed in Los Angeles, California in the summer of 2019 and became sick.

“... but it’s gone on for so long.”

Nik Uka takes a break from skateboarding in Manhattan Beach, California on Monday, June 24, 2019. This was during his first week there.

There are many organizations that help to fight wildfires and climate change before the effects become irreversible.

We can join Nik Uka in trying to make this world a healthier place.

The place that we, as humans, destroyed.

Nik Uka smiling with open arms on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 in Sterling Heights, Michigan after he talks about his trip to California. He hopes we can put an end to climate change and make the world a better place.

For a better place. For a healthier place.

For the Earth that once had such natural beauty.

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