My world on fire

Sep 13, 2020 | 1 comment

On Monday evening, as Asa and I harvested tomatoes in the garden, we noticed a haze of smoke coming over the hill and a telltale stench in the air. Wildfire. Within 15 minutes, it was as thick as I’ve ever seen it. We shut all the windows and doors, and a heavy wind swept up during dinnertime, thrashing tree limbs outside.

The news reported “historic” easterly winds spreading wildfires from the Cascades. As we were getting ready for bed a little before midnight, I heard a massive tree outside crack and plummet to the ground with a thunderous crash. About 10 minutes later, the power went out. Asa used a landline to call the power company, which said they were working on the outage.

All night, winds buffeted the house, tearing tree limbs and blowing debris outside like a dry, smoky hurricane. Morning came with a blood red sunrise and still no power. It was so dark I had to use my headlamp to get my things together. Outside, ash was falling and branches littered the gravel driveway under a now mustard-yellow sky, choked with smoke.

We carefully headed into town for the day for internet access so I could work, hoping power would be back by evening. No such luck. My phone blew up all day with emergency alerts calling for “GO NOW!” evacuations in neighboring towns, as the wildfires grew and grew, and I tried to concentrate on my work like nothing was happening.

We stayed in town for two days with Asa’s mom, and decided to head back home Wednesday night, though there was still now power or water. Our place is actually further away from the fires, and we knew the electric crews had been working for two days already and should have the power back soon.

When we got back, we hooked up a generator to cool down the refrigerator again, packed some go bags just in case, and got things squared away, feeling more prepared to leave on a moment’s notice, if needed. Later that night, around 2am, the power clicked back on, much to my relief. I finished out my work week from home, feeling distracted and distraught.

I took this photo mid-day on Tuesday. I still can’t believe how dark it was from all the smoke.

We’re now in day 5 of being smothered in wildfire smoke.

As of today, Sunday, Sept. 13, at least 23 people have died from the fires, which remain largely uncontained, and over 1 million acres have burned (twice the usual yearly number). These wildfires are spread all up and down the state, affecting the most populated regions, and especially impacting migrant workers, who continue to harvest our food, and the unhoused, who have no place to go to escape the smoke. About 40,000 people have been evacuated across the state, and 10% of Oregon’s population is under evacuation notice.

It’s hard for me to even wrap my head around these numbers and this reality. While I sit here safe in my home, tens of thousands of people nearby have been displaced, lost their homes, livelihoods, and beloved places. Local high schools and community centers have opened up as emergency shelters, and donations are pouring in, though nothing feels like enough to remedy the situation.

Air quality has been off-the-charts bad.

For perspective, any air quality index above 300 is considered hazardous; Eugene has been hovering between about 350-600 all week. It’s been slightly better out here in Horton (between 160-400, fluctuating a lot). The winds have mostly stopped, so this blanket of smoke is just sitting over the Willamette Valley and all the way out to the coast. It won’t go away until we get some rain or the wind changes direction.

What does hazardous air quality feel like? For me, it’s been a lot of sneezing, congestion, scratchy throat, and dry mouth and eyes, kind of like having a mild cold. When I spend some time outside, I start to feel slightly nauseous. I feel mildly lethargic and overall bleh. For some people, it’s a lot worse, so I guess I can thank my body for its resilience during this time.

Consider too, that all of this is happening during the coronavirus pandemic.

All summer, we’ve been modifying our activities to do everything outdoors, socially distanced. Now all of a sudden, we can’t be outdoors at all, and many people are being forced into crowded shelters, or into other peoples’ homes. I have no idea what this is going to mean for local COVID-19 cases, but there is very little we can do at this point, except take care of peoples’ immediate needs. Lane County is already preparing for a resurgence of COVID cases.

I’m surprised this hasn’t gotten more national attention. For a while, I told myself it just feels like a big deal because I’m in the midst of it. But looking at the shear scale of this disaster, at the numbers of people displaced and impacted by the smoke and wildfire itself, the number of towns destroyed, I can tell you that this is a big deal even on a national scale.

While I’m able to go about my life in a pretty normal way right now, my corner of the world is literally on fire. My community is deeply affected in a very immediate and real way.

The emotional weight of what’s happening right now is heavy, and the dense smoke outside my window casting the land in a sickly, yellowish murk is a constant reminder that this is far from over.

Last night I played music in the kitchen and danced while making dinner. It was a reminder to myself that while I may have no control over what’s going on in the outside world, I always have some control over my inner self.

I can boost my spirits with a little music and good food, while not forgetting what’s going on nearby. I can renew my inner strength and emotional fortitude so that I can show up for my community and be there for those who need it, without being caught up in the panic.

Lastly, I want to give a shout out to all the people who have come together to do what they can. To our firefighters, some of whom have lost their homes while on the frontlines. To the volunteers working in the emergency shelters. To friends collecting donations for people who have lost everything. To everyone who’s opened up their homes to others. And to everyone who has reached out, checking on us to make sure we’re okay, and offering to take us in if we need it.

My love to you all. Listen to some good music. Dance for the rain. And stay safe.


1 Comment

  1. Jeanene

    Prayers for all suffering due to the wildfires.. thank you for sharing

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