West Coast UT students navigate taking classes while living next to wildfires

Lauren Castro

Zayn Cochinwala and his family packed up wedding albums, passports and medicine bottles and set them by the front door of their home in San Jose, California. Wildfires raged only 10 miles away as they prepared for the worst. 

Biology junior Cochinwala delayed his move back to Austin by a week to make sure his family was prepared to evacuate if needed. As of Tuesday, Cochinwala is back in Austin, and his parents and older sister are still at their home and have not had to evacuate. 

“I felt guilty going back to Austin when I knew (about) everything going on in California,” Cochinwala said. “While taking classes, it’s always in the back of my head. If I wake up and my parents have sent me a picture of the smoke or my backyard, it’s very stressful knowing that my state is literally on fire.”

While Cochinwala is far from the fires, some students are taking classes from their homes in the West, where they experience the fires’ effects firsthand.  

Sloan Goldman, a human dimensions of organizations junior, lives 30 miles away from the blaze in Marin County, California, and said she can’t help but see similarities between the fires and COVID-19. 

“You never think (wildfires are) going to hit where you are, so it doesn’t seem real in the beginning, and then all of a sudden, you’re really in it,” Goldman said. “You feel so helpless because there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Goldman said the fires affected her family the most in early September, a few weeks after the initial blaze

“We woke up Wednesday (Sept. 9), and it was straight-up orange outside,” Goldman said “We probably didn’t see the sun until yesterday (Sept. 15).”


With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, Cochinwala said living under burnt skies is only worsening the situation. 

“Last year (during a wildfire), I remember my dad would wear a mask because he has asthma, but this year we already wear a mask because of the pandemic,” Cochinwala said. “It’s kind of funny, I guess, that we’re using them for two purposes.”

In Oregon, around 500,000 people have evacuated while computer science junior Samarth Goyal takes classes over Zoom about two hours away from the flames. Goyal and his family are still feeling the effects. 

“Until four or five days ago, I woke up in the morning and my entire room was yellow,” Goyal said. “I didn’t understand what was going on. For a second, I thought my eyes were going bad.”

Although the wildfires continue to disrupt everyday life, Goyal is trying to stay optimistic. He said this experience has helped him learn how to adapt in natural disasters. 

“I think coming up with solutions based on how your environment is and being innovative throughout such calamities can also prove to be very helpful,” Goyal said. “A lot of it has to do with thinking on your feet and adjusting based on your environment.”

Even though Goyal, Goldman and Cochinwala are each living in different areas, one thing remains the same — they want this to be over.

“It’s just like everything is piling on top of each other, and you just gotta wonder when it’s all going to stop and when we’re gonna get back to normal life,” Goldman said.