The weather has started to diminish my love for the West. I’ve made a habit of going home to Santa Rosa every summer but am usually disappointed to be greeted with triple-digit temperatures and hazy air. In 2015, the Valley Fire ripped through California’s Lake County, around 100 miles north of San Francisco and where my family has a summer cabin. Though our cabin was spared, much of the nearby town and residential area was demolished. The hills that were once blanketed in trees are now stubbled with charred spears.
In 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge left the air unbreathable for days. It snowed ash in Portland, and I purchased N95 masks for the first time. I had never even heard of these masks before, but news sources said they were the only ones that could keep out harmful smoke particulates. One month later, I awoke to a barrage of text messages, mostly from friends on the East Coast who had been up looking at the news while I still slept. “Are your parents okay?” a few of them read. I immediately called my mom, who answered the phone in tears.
She was woken in the middle of the night by a loud noise. High winds in the nearby mountains had caused a stainless-steel barrel in their backyard to topple. Mom, in her nightgown and flip-flops, walked out to find the heavy thing on its side. She mistook the noises outside for the ordinary sounds of night: the strange mating calls of nocturnal creatures and the cars of young partiers drinking in wooded crannies. Eventually, her eyes acclimated to the darkness. She saw a slow procession of cars moving down the hill. She heard someone call, “Get out now!” The smell of smoke finally registered. She grabbed my father, and they left in their nightclothes with the fireball just behind them, igniting oak and pine, shingle and roof.
All that was left of our home was three brick pillars and a mangled garage door. The baby books burned, as well as the photographs and the family heirlooms. My family lost everything that’s important to us—the evidence of our existence.
Since that catastrophic night, my hometown hasn’t been the same. The once-sublime time of year from August through October has become a PTSD-triggering season in hell. Yearly fires now sweep through the region, brought on by extreme heat, high winds, and freak lightning storms. Preemptive power outages, mandatory evacuations, hazardous air quality, school and work closures, and the risk of losing everything to fire have been a yearly reality. I’ve urged my parents to leave, but they are too attached to the area, having recently bought a new home only three miles down the ridge from the one that burned down.
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I don’t share their optimism. Last week, I sat in my living room in Portland wearing a ratty, two-month-old N95 mask and a pair of swimming goggles to keep my eyes from burning. The smoke seeped under our front door, making me dizzy and nauseous. Our apartment was a stifling 90 degrees inside, but we couldn’t open the windows for ventilation. My lungs ached all around—in my back and under my armpits and behind my breasts. I went to urgent care and the waiting room was filled with others with similar symptoms. On my way home, I had the urge to keep driving until I reached blue skies, fresh air.