Notes from a Fire Choked State

I had every intention of sitting down and writing about what it’s been like living in California during this past month. But whenever I try to focus, I’m only able to process brief bits of information, my mind skipping like a pebble across the surface of a large lake. In lieu of a more coherent essay, I will pass along bits of experience as it comes to me – in pieces.

Sunday, August 16th My husband, a dedicated early riser, harnesses our two dogs and walks them amid the clamor and spectacle of thousands of dry lightning strikes in the middle distance. Media outlets have warned us about the high fire danger due to dry fuels and erratic winds. The rare lightning storm that morning, later blamed for igniting multiple mega-fires in the San Francisco bay area, is at the time simply awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, August 18thMy husband and I take our dogs on their evening walk. Our neighborhood is at 1200 feet elevation on a densely populated hillside, peppered with stunning views. Before crossing the nearest street, I look to the north, then slowly turn in a circle.  I count five separate plumes of smoke. They look like bombs have been dropped. Later in the evening, I snap a photo from our back deck of smoke from three separate fires. One of the plumes I can follow to its source on the ground.

Wednesday, August 19thThe San Francisco bay area is officially surrounded by fire. We are not in any imminent danger; the closest conflagration is 25 miles away. The separate plumes merge in the air and the dome of visible sky is continuously saturated by smoke. There will be no more clean air for at least a month. Large swaths of homes are evacuated in multiple outer Bay Area locations.

Thursday, August 20th We dig through our linen closet to locate the handful of N95 masks we purchased and used for smoky skies last year. They become increasingly ratty over the next days and weeks, fraying from use and reuse. There are no new N95 masks available for purchase, as they are designated for health care workers to wear for protection from COVID-19. Cloth masks, however, don’t protect wearers from the smoke. My husband and I debate the accuracy of different air quality index (AQI) maps, and eventually agree to disagree, us each settling on a different one. I bookmark three different AQI sources in my browser favorites, though, and check them regularly.

Friday, August 21st A period of intense heat begins and we change the thermostat to cool. Most homes in our area don’t have air conditioning. Families across the region are sweltering behind windows closed from the smoke. We are some of the lucky ones: a few years ago, we installed air conditioning, which we’re running nonstop. Our old, large intake grate in the living room roars like a jet revving its engines when the air is on, but we willingly accept that tradeoff for a cool home.

Texts arrive later in the evening, warning us that California is now under a flex alert, signaling low energy reserves. With record electricity use during the heatwave and decreased solar energy production because of the smoke cover, the state is using more energy than it has stored. Our local utility, PG&E, begins rolling outages in our area. Thankfully, our home is spared, though a nearby waste processing plant goes dark and releases raw sewage into the Oakland estuary. This series of alerts and warnings repeats over the next two days, and then disappears later in the week as cooler weather returns.

Saturday, August 22nd The National Weather Service issues a red flag warning for the portions of the bay area, including ours, and multiple other locations across the state. That is the highest-level warning for fire risk and is often issued alongside high winds and low humidity. I pack our go bags and review with my husband and 10-year old son which items they are responsible for in the event of an evacuation. We’ve learned a few things from a neighborhood fire a few years ago, where portions of our yard burned, but our house was saved. That night we fled on foot under heavy burning embers because our cars were parked in by fire trucks. During high fire danger these days, and on this evening, we park one of our cars on an adjacent street to increase our chances of accessing it. I pace the interior of our house, opening cupboards, pulling out drawers and photographing their contents. We will need to submit those to our insurance company if our house burns down and we want to be reimbursed. Before falling asleep, I tab up the volume on my cell phone, so it will wake me if any alerts arrive during the night.

Wednesday, August 26th My son starts his first day of 5th grade from his bedroom, per pandemic social distancing protocol. I have moved his go-bag into our bedroom, so it doesn’t distract him from his learning.

Though I wear an N95 mask outside, the smoke provokes an ongoing headache and stuffy nose. My chest feels like a clenched fist. Both my son and I are regularly using our steroid asthma inhalers. Both our dogs have red eyes, and the younger one’s eyes are goopy after their walks.

Monday, August 31st We Zoom chat with my husband’s parents in Montreal and his two brothers and their families, also in California. My pregnant sister-in-law reassures us that she is doing well. Her dentist friend has a relationship with a medical supply company and has been able to route N95 masks her way. Still, she’s a bit worried about the baby after she’s born. Otherwise, all is well and the baby’s arrival is expected soon but not imminently.

After logging off, my husband successfully locates a now scarce portable air purifier, which he arranges to be delivered to their house as soon as possible.

Saturday, September 5thMost of California is again under an extreme heat advisory. Records today across the state will be shattered. Our little home up in the Oakland hills, usually cooled by a damp ocean breeze, reaches 104. These days, we walk the dogs just once, at 5:30 in the morning. Otherwise, I strap on my ratty N95 mask periodically throughout the day to let them out to relieve themselves, supervising them carefully, and immediately ushering them back inside when they are finished.

Fires in other parts of the state have blown up overnight. Sitting at my computer screen, I read that one massive fire is threatening a recreational area a ways south where my aunt, uncle, and family friends have cabins. My stomach knots and my skin feels like ice water was poured over it. There’s a rumor that hundreds of people are trapped by a reservoir, surrounded by flames. The rumor is confirmed. I call my parents, who relay to me that our family friends were able to evacuate a bit earlier, so they were not part of the group that was trapped. My aunt and uncle are also safe at a different location.

Sunday, September 6thWe’ve incorporated my son’s best friend and his family, who live around the corner, in our family bubble during the COVID pandemic. They’ve located a beach about 45 minutes away where the smoke is reliably lighter and the air cooler, and offer to take my son boogie boarding with their family today. My lawyer husband is neck-deep in an intensely busy period, working 60-70 hour weeks from his unfinished basement closet turned office. I, with a severe chronic illness, don’t have the energy for such a trip. But my son skips light-footed out the front door to his friend’s waiting car. He arrives home after dinnertime, pink-nosed, sandy, and content.

Monday, September 7th The density of the smoke in the air increases. I run packaging tape over the unpatched hole where the internet cable used to enter the house and stuff wadded Kleenexes between the gaps of our old windows. We’ve been running our three portable air filters continuously since the air deteriorated. One by one, we take them offline to clean the dark brown gunk from their innards, then set them to high once again.

Tuesday, September 8th I doom scroll on Twitter, which is saturated with stories of Oregonians fleeing for their lives amid monstrous wildfires in that state. Our area begins to see smoke from those fires as well.

Wednesday, September 9th I wake disoriented and groggy. It’s still nighttime, though my bedside clock reads 7:15 am. I peek out the window; there’s no light. I usher my son through his before-school routine, giving the sun time to break through, but there’s none to be had this day. My son tells me that if he didn’t know it was smoke, he’d be really excited because it feels like he’s allowed to stay up past his bedtime. Today’s high temperature is 20 degrees below what was forecast, as not enough sun got through. I wonder if this is what it’s like after a volcanic eruption. I step onto our back deck for a photo at 8:40 am.

In the afternoon, I learn from a Facebook post that one of my friends from before I was married, and who now lives in Medford, Oregon, lost her home to fire the previous evening.

Friday, September 11th The air outside is categorized as hazardous. My son’s evening soccer practice, mostly foot skills inside individual 6-foot squares due to the pandemic, is canceled for the umpteenth time. They always seem to wait until mid-afternoon to send the cancellation email, though, as if hoping for a miraculous last-minute force to sweep the air clean.

Saturday, September 12thMy son flops on the sofa, on his bed, on the dogs’ beds. Still sealed inside the house, his interest in indoor solo projects waned a while ago. Our younger dog, in her evening ritual since this all started, zooms around the household, leaping from chairs, sofas, and edges of tables. We shake our heads and laugh, because what else can we do?

Sunday, September 13th We clear our car’s windshield of ash and drive around the corner to share dinner with my son’s best friend’s family, a first since the pandemic started. We look around in amazement as we step inside their front door. It’s the first time in six months, to the day, that we’ve been somewhere indoors other than our house, the grocery store, and the doctor’s office. The dad had convinced himself that the air quality is better today, so he went for a 90-minute run earlier. His eyes are bloodshot, and he’s looking haggard. It didn’t go well, he explains. We let the kids jump on the outdoor trampoline for a while, the first time my son has been outdoors in days. He comes back sniffing, sneezing, and rubbing at his eyes. We each admit to ourselves that no, the air quality hasn’t improved. Maybe soon, though, we think. We avoid the thought that fire season has only just begun, that the dry fall winds, blowing in the from the wrong direction, are mostly yet to come. I receive a text that’s simply a photo — of a new baby, swaddled tightly, lying in a clear hospital bassinet. Her eyes are closed gently on her peaceful face and bear just a trace of white flecks from her birth. It’s followed by a note that Mom, dad, and baby are all healthy and happy.

*A note from the Commoner executive team: The West Coast is engulfed in fire, and it is important to remember our duty to our community. Many of the readers and authors of the Commoner are based in California and Oregon. We encourage readers who have the resources to donate to charitable organizations in the region such as Redwood Empire Food Bank, UpValley Family Centers, and Puente de la Costa Sur. During times of hardship, we always try to support our fellow commoners.*

Shannon Cassidy
Writer at The Commoner | + posts

Shannon is a regular writer for the Commoner. She has an expertise in short creative nonfiction about parenting, health and illness. She has a background in marketing communications, web content management, and business research.

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