When Wildfires Choke California, This Activist Helps Get Masks To Those Who Need Them Most

With a single tweet, Quinn Redwoods started an organization that has distributed thousands of masks to people in Northern California, focusing on the most vulnerable populations.

Quinn Redwoods sits at the edge of a lake

Quinn Redwoods sits by the water at Lake Merritt in Oakland, one of the locations where people from Mask Oakland have distributed masks to protect people from smoke during and following wildfires. (Photo by Nina Thompson for YR Media and CatchLight Local as part of a reporting collaboration with Grist and Next City)

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This story was published in collaboration with YR Media (formerly Youth Radio) as part of the Equitable Cities Reporting Hub for Environmental Justice, an initiative led by Grist and Next City.

Each time a fire breaks out in Northern California, local activist Quinn Redwoods and their collaborators spring into action. Walking through Oakland, Redwoods distributes masks to as many people as they can. They hand out masks in places where no one else is paying attention, like crowded underpasses where unhoused people have no options to escape the smoke. They’ll even stop UPS drivers to offer them a mask. Redwoods describes the activity as “organically emerging.”

It all started back in 2017 during the Tubbs Fire, when it was so smoky in the San Francisco Bay Area it wasn’t safe to be outside. As people started posting on social media desperate to find masks, Redwoods quickly realized that the most vulnerable people in the community would be the least likely to have access to that kind of protective equipment — and also the most exposed. They scanned the web and found one hardware store in Oakland with masks, and went there to buy as many as they could. Then, they turned to Twitter and Venmo, created “Mask Oakland” accounts, and started raising money to buy more. Within hours, Redwoods was passing out masks.

What started as a pop-up organization has just kept going, as Californians and the rest of the country start to understand the risk of unhealthy air from wildfire smoke, which has grown exponentially in recent years. Since 2017, Redwoods has distributed tens of thousands of masks through Mask Oakland, and their approach includes paying special attention to overlooked or marginalized communities. That was part of the intention from the beginning, according to Redwoods, who identifies as “queer, trans, disabled, plural.” As they put it: “Woven in with the history of Mask Oakland and our climate activism has been advocating for people like us.”

Apartments near Lake Merritt in Oakland. (Photo by Nina Thompson for YR Media and CatchLight Local)

Redwoods grew up in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. They remember the community as divided into thirds: people working for the government, people trying to influence the government, and everyone else. Their parents took them to protests as a kid, and they chose to keep going when they were a teen. “From a young age, I also wanted to do something that would help people.”

Redwoods explored different approaches to activism. “And then … I learned that I’m trans and plural, and didn’t really know what to do with that at first,” they say. “So I just kind of went and worked for some environmental groups because I was like, ‘At least I need a planet.’”

Redwoods moved to California in 2014, looking for a place where they could connect with a larger trans community. Three years later, Redwoods was driving home from a permaculture conference near Santa Rosa in Northern California when the Tubbs Fire broke out. “And then it was really windy, like scary windy,” they recall. “And then there was smoke. And then we were driving down the 101 [highway] at night, and it was right before the 101 got shut down. … I drove past [the fire] and I was like, ‘Should we stop and like, look at this?’ And my friend was like, ‘No, keep driving!’”

During the fire, Redwoods remembers hearing that masks were sold-out in many places. They were able to pick up an N95, but many people didn’t have access to masks, which can help protect from wildfire smoke. Seeing so many people exposed to the toxic air freaked them out. “There were people under bridges, no one had any masks and everyone was outside.”

Redwoods decided to take action. “I bought $300 of N95s. And I took a picture of the receipt, created a Twitter account, and created a Venmo.”

From there, Mask Oakland was born.

Redwoods says they drove under some of the highway underpasses where people were camped out, “and I just started giving people some masks and talking to people.” There were no other programs doing anything similar to protect unhoused residents from smoke. “It was just very jarring, like no one’s doing anything. We’re the only ones doing this.”

They were underemployed at the time, and Redwoods recalls spending their days at the Impact Hub in Oakland, a coworking space, “just trying to figure out what I was doing in my life.” Without full-time employment, they lacked financial stability, but had the time and availability to get Mask Oakland off the ground. They were also able to connect with like-minded folks at the coworking space who were keen to help out. So they kept raising money and buying up new batches of masks from the same hardware store. “I think we got about 4,000 masks that year,” Redwoods says. “And I never recovered that 300 bucks.”

The fire ended, and Redwoods went on with their life once the need went away. But just the next year, in 2018, the need arose again. Redwoods started getting messages on Facebook, “and they were like, ‘Hey, the Camp Fire, have you heard of it? Are you guys going to do anything?’ And I was like, ‘Oh God, I guess we better do something.’”

Redwoods teamed up with others and started giving out masks again. One of the volunteers, Cassandra Williams, who had helped in 2017 as well, tweeted about what they were doing. By the end of that night, Redwoods says they received enough money to make up for the costs from that day. And then — “I woke up to about $15,000 in my Venmo from that Twitter thread. And we just built and built and built to about $100,000 raised and 85,000 masks distributed.”

Apartments near Lake Merritt in Oakland. (Photo by Nina Thompson for YR Media and CatchLight Local)

Donations are only one part of the equation in running Mask Oakland. Redwoods found that they were always trying to balance three things: masks, money, and people. There would be an excess of one thing, and not enough of the other. They went through the cycle again in August through October of 2020, another active fire season

“It impacted my health, probably the health of a lot of people who were involved because it’s very stressful and feeling like if I don’t [do something], I can’t rest. If I don’t push myself a little further, then that might be thousands of people who don’t get anything, any help.” Despite the clear need for masks, Redwoods says there still weren’t any other organizations addressing the issue like Mask Oakland was.

The number of Americans experiencing at least one day of unhealthy air from wildfire smoke has increased 27 fold in the last decade, including almost 25 million people in 2020 alone. Since COVID hit, there’s been another complication: the politicization of masks. But the fire risk hasn’t gone anywhere, so Redwoods says people at their organization find themselves having to explain “it’s just for the smoke.”

Redwoods says COVID has “massively complexified everything,” including respiratory health. “It’s like a scientifically proven terrible combo. You know,fire, smoke and COVID.”

Another ongoing challenge: Redwoods says donations can be unreliable if you aren’t constantly “getting attention for the thing you’re doing.” When fires are happening, and there is a lot of media coverage, Mask Oakland receives more donations. But when the fires stop, it seems that people stop caring. Immediately after the Tubbs Fire in 2017 and the Camp Fire 2018, Redwoods says “the support and momentum just collapsed.”

They’ve learned to accept it as part of being a mutual aid organizer — staying nimble and finding other sources of income when it’s slow, so they aren’t dependent on fires to pay the rent.

“It’s a lot of riding waves,” Redwoods says. “And then also it creates this desire for another wave, but you know another wave won’t come unless there’s another fire.”

The photographs for the project were created through a collaboration between YR Media reporters and CatchLight Local, a new collaborative model for visual journalism that is advancing trust and representation in local media.

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Nina Thompson is a high school student in Berkeley.

Tags: covid-19californiaoaklandwildfiresequitable cities reporting hub for environmental justicemutual aid

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