Living Through the Oregon Smoke
I want to start by saying my family is grateful beyond measure that neither we nor our homes were harmed by the Labor Day fires that swept the state of Oregon. But I think we– a collective we that includes our entire city– are still reeling from the triple whammy: our continuing Level 1 Covid reopening status, ongoing protests condemning police brutality against Black, indigenous, and other peoples of color, and smoke that made our air the worst in the world for days and days. This is the story of our experience.
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My husband and I started watching Inciweb in mid-August, when lightning sparked the Green Ridge fire in the Deschutes National Forest, about 12 miles north of Sisters, Oregon. Inciweb is the U.S. government’s “all-risk incident information management system.” It maps fires across the Western U.S. and provides regular updates about each fire.
We cared because we had a week-long camping trip planned alongside the spectacular Metolius River in Government Camp, a teensy settlement outside of Sisters. After the fire started, we watched as roads were closed and people were evacuated. Even though the camping areas stayed open, the surrounding towns and national forests were slowly choked with smoke. When the road adjacent to the camp was closed I heard the door to our vacation slam shut.
I did a quick search. Things looked clear north of us, in Mt. Rainier National Park. I lucked in to an available Airbnb right outside the park entrance, we got our hands on a great map and some trail books, and, just in time for Labor Day, off we went.
Who checks the news while on vacation? Our first full day, we started a challenging hike that rewarded us with views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, our beloved Mt. Hood, the Nisqually Valley, the Muir Glacier on Mt. Rainier. But it was also unusual– the wind was fierce, making the air chilly, verging on cold. We hiked in layers for much of the day, over the rocky trail that meandered across the mountain. At one exposed viewpoint, we dug our hiking poles into cracks in the rock to keep from being blown down.
We marveled at the blue of the Muir glacier’s edges. We watched glacial melt cascade down the valley to feed the Nisqually river. We could even see– through binoculars– guided expeditions staging their climb to the top of the mountain. But we also watched layers of smoke drift in.
By the end of the day, Mt. St. Helens was barely visible, Mt Adams was an outline in the haze, and Mt. Hood had disappeared. The fires in eastern Washington must be pretty powerful to generate such intense smoke, we remarked. A ranger we met on the trail commented that the extreme wind was the only thing that kept our own hike relatively clear; we might see smoke, but at least we couldn’t smell it.
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We vaguely knew that on September 8, a grass fire in Ashland, Oregon had triggered the Almeda fire. We knew drought conditions and high winds were causing the fire to spread rapidly. (The New York Times has a horrible/stunning video showing how it spread so swiftly– see below.) I don’t remember if we knew then that the towns of Talent and Phoenix had been leveled, or that the fire had encroached on the city of Medford.
I checked in with my mother in Portland. Her voice was full of distress as she described what she was seeing on the news. “It’s awful, just awful,” she kept repeating. “Those poor people. Those poor, poor people.”
The next day, Wednesday, at about 5 p.m., she texted a photo, taken from our driveway. “Fires worse. Scary,” she typed. I spoke to her, then texted my daughter, who acknowledged that while things were under control, they were scary. Quietly, I began to worry.
On Thursday night, I checked in with my daughter by phone. Tentatively, I broached the subject of an evacuation plan. “I’ve been thinking about that,” she said. We didn’t think we would need to use it, but making it helped us feel in control. Friday morning, my husband and I cut our trip short and drove south, into the smoke.
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Different bodies react differently to smoke. In a 100 year-old house, you can’t escape smoke; there are simply too many gaps, too little insulation. Still, because I have asthma, ameliorating its presence was a necessity. As soon as we walked in, the smell told us we might already be too late. Later that afternoon, there would be watering eyes, rawness at the back of the throat, coughing. But in the early moments, we were simply overcome by the smell.
We made a game plan. First, we used painters’ tape to cover gaps between windows and window frames. I taped shut the leaky mail slot that flapped in the wind and delivered breezes all winter. We lowered storm windows, shoved rolled-up towels against the bottoms of doors. My husband constructed a homemade air purifier out of a box fan and a MERV 13 furnace filter. We set the fan on high and ran it nonstop for more than a week.
Within 16 hours, that filter was dark. But just try to find a replacement anywhere in the city, or, for that matter, online. Even when I tracked down furnace filters at a New York Home Depot and had a friend try to overnight them to me, the best the company could promise was a six day delivery span. Anything sooner would cost $498. It didn’t matter– soon after, the company suspended service in our zip code and dozens of others.
There were more fires. The Lincoln Fire was near the coast. Other fires hit closer to home: the Holiday Farm Fire, the Beachie Creek Fire, even the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire in Washington licked the edges of the land of one of my husband’s colleagues. There were other fires I can’t name. But I can tell you the exact criteria of the three-stage evacuation system that was put in place. As the fires spread, I watched the areas of the tri-colored map shift and change. Level 1: Get Ready; Level 2: Get Set– ready to leave at a moment’s notice; Level 3: GO NOW. On the map, Level 3 was always in red.
Our county, Multnomah, added an evacuation notice box to its website, updating it regularly as residents of the county south of us were ordered to leave. I made my family pack Go Bags. Then we waited, trying to work, filling spare moments with air quality index reports: Purple Air, AirNow, Windy, OregonAir (an app by the Oregon DEQ), and Oregon Smoke Information. Day after day, our air registered as the most hazardous on earth. The streets were empty. The Red Cross set up shelters in the convention center and the parking lot of a large mall. Having read that steam from a pot of simmering water attracted PM2.5 particles and dragged them to the floor, I focused on keeping a huge spaghetti pot full and simmering. Sometimes that felt like the only focus I could keep.
All our efforts helped. Still, by our eighth day in the smoke, my lungs began to hurt. The air stayed a murky gray-brown; people posted pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit showing how little they could see. In an effort to be chipper, people wrote things like, “This can’t go on forever;” “Soon this will be over and we’ll be able to take a walk again.” But people also wrote about unexpected crying jags, escalating irritation, sleeplessness, emergency room visits for breathing difficulties, a growing sense of isolation, panic, and despair.
I want to say I was fine. I want to say that I was resilient and brave. But it became harder to get up in the morning. And, as my chest became more painful, my view of my circumstances and those of the world began to narrow. By the time I heard that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, most things had already been rolling off me like water off of waxed paper. Hers was one more. It took rain, clearing air, and sunshine for me to start to feel something like relief.
And, life goes on. My new furnace filters are supposed to arrive tomorrow, almost ten days after they were “overnighted” to me. A town south of here has been moved from Level 2 to Level 1 on the evacuation list. The president decreed that Portland, Seattle, and New York are anarchist jurisdictions. The protest of two nights ago turned into a dance party.
Earlier today, I rode my bike without difficulty breathing. The sky was blue, the sun was strong.
Thank God, I remember thinking. Thank God.
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The chart below shows the color bands that represent different air quality values. Below that is an animation of the AQI of the Pacific Northwest from September 1-20.