A big windstorm, “unusual” for this time of year (as if there is still anything as stable as “usual,” in the weather or anything else these days), blew through the Pacific Northwest yesterday. It brought smoke from wildfires and took away power from many. A friend who lives near Portland posted on her Facebook page last night: “Lights out, no power… And, there are fires breaking out about 40 miles away.” So much of the West Coast is burning. It’s heartbreaking.
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, Washington
The emails started coming in last Wednesday. Be Prepared for Wildfire Smoke, announced the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. A plume of wildfire smoke from California is expected to pass over the region in the next few days. To limit your time outdoors, stock up on necessities like food, medications, and other items you may need for your family. I went to Trader Joe’s on Thursday.
This morning, another email arrived from the Clean Air Agency (bolding and caps theirs): Air quality conditions in most of the Puget Sound region are UNHEALTHY for everyone. We expect to see air quality reach UNHEALTHY FOR SENSITIVE GROUPS and UNHEALTHY levels through Wednesday and possibly beyond.
An hour ago, an Emergency Alert notification came in via NextDoor from the Washington Emergency Management Division: As the winds start to slacken, we’re left with a complex air quality picture… Many people are wondering where to go to escape the smoke, but conditions are dynamic and changing quickly, so most communities should be prepared to stay indoors. King County issued its own Emergency Alert: The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for fire danger in Western Washington through Wednesday, Sept. 9.
You’d think we’d be used to stay-at-home orders, but this one feels different. I am longing to go out the front door and stand on my stoop, or open the slider and visit the plants on the back deck. Before February 25, which was when I reached my personal this does not feel safe threshold, I went to the gym between three and five times a week. I have managed to walk pretty much every day since then, which has greatly contributed to my ability to negotiate the isolation and decreased activity.
The message on my weather app today has gone from Unhealthy Air Quality to Unhealthy Air Quality for Sensitive Groups to Smoke and back to Unhealthy Air Quality for Sensitive Groups. I am well aware that people in California have been dealing with far worse conditions for weeks and that, while it is hoped that this air quality issue will be relatively short-lived in the Northwest, there is no end in sight for those in the Southwest.
One of my best friends lives in the desert 128 miles east of Los Angeles. The temperature there has been in the 100s for months. I check her weather daily. Rarely is the air quality any better than Moderate. Today, it’s Very Unhealthy. Two days ago, when we were talking, we suddenly got disconnected. Usually, since she uses her landline, that’s the fault of my cell phone but not this time. She called me back from her cell a couple of minutes later. “The power’s out,” she said in a voice in which I could hear the incipient panic. “It’s 120 out there. It’s already starting to warm up in here.” When she called back half an hour later, she sounded like someone had given her a present. “It’s back,” she said. “It turns out they did it on purpose. A rolling blackout.”
We are all so vulnerable. We have been forced to see that so many of the things we took for granted, that allowed us to live our “ordinary” lives, are fragile in ways we hadn’t imagined. We haven’t lived those “ordinary” lives for more than six months and there is no end in sight. My friend in the desert doesn’t have the ability that I usually do to take daily walks, not when the air quality is consistently poor and it’s over 90 degrees at 9 AM. My heart breaks for persons and planet. I can manage to stay inside with the windows closed for a few days.