September 18, 2020
Today would have marked eleven days of hazardous air. On Friday, day four, our son in Chicago texted around 8 a.m. to ask how we were doing. I remember saying something like “I wonder what happens when there’s no oxygen left.” To me it didn’t sound too dramatic, but he called within a few minutes. He’d found some empty flights from our Pacific Northwest home to Chicago. We could leave tomorrow, stay with his family for a week, and return when this was all over. We love Chicago and long to see our family there. But, we thought: COVID. Airports. Undependable fellow travelers. Car rental hubbub at O’Hare. We could be exposed, asymptomatic, inadvertently importing the virus to them. So we stayed put amidst the toxins. After eleven days, today it rained. Sir John Lennon, you may prescribe love, but all you really need is air.
That Monday before, Labor Day, September 7th, our day at the coast was so glorious we hesitated to leave. We took off around 5 p.m., when light glinted and sparked from horizon to lacy shoreline, but we cast a cold eye onward.
By the time our car had climbed up the first mountain pass back to the valley, my cell phone began to blare: LEVEL 1 ALERT! Wildfires! Within seconds the car tipped to the downward side where smoke crawled over the landscape below.
We soon learned that Level 1 meant “get ready” Level 2, by the time we were home, was “get set,” and Level 3, a few hours later “go now!”
As it turned out, we were not and would not be in any evacuation area, but we discovered the next day that as we were driving, twenty-foot flames had been leaping and careening around our friends’ homes up river. Before the GO Now! alert sounded, they were out, heading to their kids’ home in town, not knowing whether they would see their own again. They were among the fortunate.
We valley-dwellers were thrust into the nebula of wildfire-land. Tuesday first light was at 8 a.m., a bright marigold. The hazy sun soon faded to a dull yam shade. We read the news and checked the Air Quality Index (AQI). Hazardous.
The AQI scores grade air quality from 0 to 500. 0 to 50 is green, or good. One point over 50 and you’re no longer good, you’re moderate. Politically speaking, moderate, to me at least, is good, but moderate in air quality and you’re on your way to unhealthy. You can be unhealthy for sensitive groups before you’re just plain unhealthy. Before you get to hazardous, you’re very unhealthy and experiencing “health effects” like headache, cough, damaged lungs, and even cardiac issues. Hazardous, beginning at 300, is beyond that. Our air quality as of Tuesday night was in the 400s. When I went to bed Thursday night, we were at 525, even though the AQI doesn’t go up to 525. A friend’s post on Facebook said she glanced at the AQI around midnight Thursday night; it was 758. True, officially 758 doesn’t exist. We had reached air quality Never-Neverland.
We already had done the obvious. We closed the windows first thing. We have an air conditioner that brings in outside air. Not going there. We began running it on recycled air. But we were two humans in shared space taking in used air. We know trees give off oxygen, but our windows were closed to the 40 trees on our property. These were my thoughts when I wondered to my son what happens when you run out of oxygen. I started drinking water by the gallon, a cup an hour, figuring the O in H2O provides some form of new oxygen. Showers, steaming pots on the stove—we kept breathing.
By day five I grew testy with the expert warnings and cavalier advice flowing full force from local and national media. Masks don’t work. The fine particulate matter that ruins your lungs slips through a COVID face covering. Scarves and bandanas, even wet, are useless. Get an N95 respirator. Make sure you find someone who has been trained to help you select the right size, test the seal, and teach you how to use it. If you can do that, it “may offer some protection if used correctly.” Don’t use up all the N95 masks, because front line health care workers need those masks to care for victims of the pandemic concurrent with your puny wildfire.
About your air conditioner, it had better have a high efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filter or better yet, an electro-static precipitator (ESP). I went for the filter. I needed a MERV13 grade air filter and found one—the wrong size, not suitable for the air conditioner, but all that was left. We bungee-corded it to a box fan. If all else fails, they told us, seek shelter elsewhere. Thanks for that. There was nowhere within the 100,00 square miles of our state we could go. The fire and smoke ensnared all means of escape from us outward.
We were daily reminded that when smoke is heavy over a prolonged period of time, fine particles build up indoors even though we cannot see them. Turning on bathroom fans and stove venting systems will suck in more of the toxic air outside. Forget using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, and candles. Don’t vacuum because that agitates the particles already inside.
As the week wore on, news seeped in, as did the stray particles that stirred each time you cracked open a door. Bad air, they said, increases your anxiety level. That seemed consistent with my state of mind. What can you do for it? You can’t exercise because that consumes what little oxygen you have. Yoga, meditation: these are your best bet. Not my forté. You can drink. And eat. Although it sounds grim, we found solace in organizing our vital records.
Another Monday arrived, a full one week into suffocating windless conditions. The fire nearest us remained zero percent contained. Meteorologists now were firmly predicting three days of solid rain, arriving Wednesday. By Tuesday they were back-pedaling. Maybe by the end of the week . . . .
We noticed that the coast was experiencing some air breaks. We had a place to stay. A little over an hour’s drive, and we could be taking deep breaths, maybe even picking up some clam chowder take-out. We made a break for it.
Checking the AQI on our arrival, we found we were now at only very unhealthy. Whoopee, but no deep breathing. A window had been left open a sliver during the fires, so our respite kicked off with masks on (we had graduated to KN95 masks) for a thorough cleaning of ash from every ash-coated surface. Fortunately we had brought along our bungee-corded box fan with it’s MERV13 filter. We could still smell smoke, but after vacuuming furniture (hang the prohibition—the vacuum cleaner there had a HEPA filter), we felt we could sit down inside with a glass of wine and leftover chili, catching a faded facsimile of a sunset over the eerily glassy sea.
The next morning our AQI numbers had flipped. The valley was now just under unhealthy whereas we had tipped beyond hazardous. More holing in. We’d stick it out. Rain would doubtless come first to the coast. And it did that evening with a two-minute shower at dusk. Thursday it returned with a vengeance. Our toxic air quality plunged to an innocuous moderate. I donned my rubber boots, stepped outside with an umbrella, and trudged down to the beach, where raindrops steadily plopped and pattered into rivulets along the shore.
Back in the valley it rained and rained that day. The rain would drop relief onto our local fire, our twenty-something state fires. Our firefighters, those from here and those from everywhere else—Utah, Colorado, the National Guard, farmers with ‘dozers, volunteers with shovels—would pause for a moment and take a pure breath. And they would forge on.
September 26, 2020
Now, nearly three weeks after the fire jolted our world, its 173,000+ of the million acres statewide, are just 45% contained. An inch of rain has helped to quell further spread beyond its perimeter. Firefighters “mop up,” subduing hot spots. Displaced homeowners are able to consult maps to determine the status of their homes. More than 60% (that is more than 700) of the structures hit are a total loss. There are gradations of shaken; I realize I have not encountered the half of it. Still we all are breathing plentiful fresh air this fair afternoon while bright cumulus banks blow across a cerulean backdrop.