Anticipating Fire

Living with fire and smoke in Northern California

Laura D. Routh

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You can mark the start of spring in parts of Northern California by the clumps of daffodils rising in patches of black dirt; the chorus of sneezes resounding in stores and outdoor cafes; and the arrival of balmy days, chasing away the wet, wintry ones. But even as oaks and Chinese elms dress their limbs in splendid emerald, forming canopies across neighborhoods, parks and busy streets, I’m already growing anxious about fire.

When the first wave of smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire advanced southward from Paradise, California, the acrid smell woke me up before dawn. My first thought was I had forgotten to buy face masks. For the ten days that followed, the air quality index in parts of the Sacramento Valley exceeded 150 — soaring to 497 on day three of the fire — a degree of pollution that is unhealthy for everyone, not just people with underlying health conditions. Because our part of the state had never seen this much pollution from wildfires, the noxious, smoke-filled world in which I had awakened felt novel at the time. But now it has become a recurring part of our lives.

Breathing uneasy

California has witnessed some of the most devastating wildfires on record over the past several years, burning through forests and towns and drastically altering our way of life. The fires keep coming, whether we are prepared or not. As a result, we’re all having to live with the toxic air, a mixture of particles and poisonous gases — such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and benzene — that enter the atmosphere when trees, shrubs and grasses ignite, or when wildfires burn through homes and industrial buildings.

According to guidelines set by the EPA, the air is safe for everyone to breathe when pollution levels fall between zero and 50. During the 2020 fires, our region’s air quality hovered between unhealthy and hazardous (greater than 300) for around 25 days between late August and early October. I scrambled to learn about air purifiers and order a couple of them before supplies ran out. Because it was taking so long for them to arrive, one evening, when the air quality was especially bad, my son and I had to wear our face masks indoors. I couldn’t help wondering about the people living at or near the poverty…

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Laura D. Routh

Writing mostly about climate and culture. Taking notes on the changing flora and landscapes in Northern California. Lover of glaciers, trees and textiles.