Fresh Air

How can I convey what has happened in Northern California?

This past week marked the worst wildfires in California state history. Thousands of people, including several whole towns, were evacuated. Several thousand people have lost their homes. Over forty people have died and several hundred more are missing. At least 200,000 acres have burned — probably more by now.

For me, it started last Monday morning. I hadn’t slept well the night before. It had been a windy night, and our house was creaking so much that I had trouble sleeping.

At 5am on Monday, I smelled smoke. We live in the hills. Signs are posted indicating the highest fire danger. I wondered whether there was a fire in the large regional park behind our house.

I called the police and they said that there was no fire. At that time, I didn’t understand where the smell was coming from. Only later would I understand that the smoke was coming from the Wine Country fires, over 30 miles away.

On Monday we started to hear about the fires in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. One sad piece of news emerged: A camp and retreat center where our family had spent some wonderful weekends had been mostly destroyed. And a whole neighborhood in Santa Rosa had been flattened by fire — the pictures were shocking.

On Tuesday morning, I was to meet my friend for a run at 6am. As soon as I got out of my house and ran to meet her, I realized we couldn’t run. The air was disgusting. It was like sitting at a campfire, directly in the path of the smoke. I walked home.

Throughout the week, people were calling for our school district to cancel school. I didn’t see the difference between our home and the school. At least at school our kids were learning, even if they couldn’t go out to recess. But some schools were suffering with bad filtration and no fresh air, reporting children leaving the schools in ambulances.

By Wednesday, the air quality continued to worsen. On Wednesday afternoon, the superintendent cancelled school on Thursday.

The air was bad on Thursday, too, and the forecast for the next few days wasn’t any better. My neighbor let me know that they were driving south to their in-laws in search of fresh air.

I realized we should leave too. There was no safe place. Outside, it was disgusting. According to official measures, the air quality was very unhealthy. Our home felt polluted inside: With the air circulating from the outside, the polluted, smoky air was entering our house. We considered getting an air purifier, but given recent events, we doubted any local stores had them in stock. Some people were walking around with masks, although from what we read, most masks would not help against the microscopic particles in the air from the fire. I had a yucky taste in my mouth each morning from breathing the smoke, and by Thursday afternoon, my lungs were hurting.

The polluted environment spiked my anxiety. All week, I had a hard time calming down and focusing. My body had an instinctual reaction of wanting to get away from the smoky air.

We are fortunate to have access to a cabin in the mountains, 3 hours away. We packed Thursday, left Friday morning and invited some friends to join us for the weekend.

While we were away, the Air Quality Board issued a health advisory, encouraging residents to leave the region for the next few days.

We are grieving for all was lost this week. We have a greater sense of vulnerability as we hear the stories of those who had a minute to leave their homes. And we have deepened appreciation for fresh air — because only when one loses something for a while does one realize how precious it is.