The West Has Never Felt So Small

With fires raging up and down the West Coast, and the pandemic restricting travel, the instinct to bolt has nowhere to go.

The Willamette Valley, in Oregon (Will Matsuda)

The West is on fire and there’s nowhere to run. Up and down Interstate 5, the artery connecting most of the major cities on the West Coast, a pall of thick smoke has turned the sun red. Millions of acres have burned. I’m calling and texting friends in communities across Oregon, Washington, California. A friend who lives in the Medford area of Oregon, where hundreds of homes have been destroyed, has evacuated; another lost her childhood home. Later today, another friend living in the path of uncontrolled flames is bringing some of her paintings to my house to keep them safe. My brother Alex, a sign installer in Seattle, is wearing a particulate respirator while he works in nearly 90-degree heat, but since it has an unfiltered exhalation valve, he has to switch to a cloth mask to interact with clients. He says that when he’s switching the masks out, he can feel the grit in his throat as he breathes in. The claustrophobia of this—of fire turning the entire West Coast dim with smoke, on top of the fear, isolation, and long-term lockdown imposed by the pandemic—is almost too much to bear.

The American West is laden with all sorts of cultural baggage, much of it cornball settler-colonialist tropes that quickly turn dangerously toxic—cults of rugged individualism and self-reliance, myths of boundless opportunity. But one part of the western ethos that I have always clung to, as someone born in Seattle and now living in Southern Oregon, is that there is space in the West—space to be alone, to stretch out and express yourself, or to move on and reinvent yourself. When I lived on the East Coast, the restaurant tables always seemed too close together. Parks were too crowded. The horizon was cluttered with buildings and trees. After moving back West, my eyes were able to focus on distant mountains or the endless Pacific. If I got pissed off or needed to think, I could always drive until I was the only one on the road.

Fire has been part of the West for millennia. Ponderosa pines’ sweetly fragrant bark has evolved to shield the heart of the tree from frequent small-scale blazes. The wildflower-spangled meadows of Yosemite were maintained by Indigenous people through careful use of controlled burns. Such meadows were magnets for game and gardens for food plants.

But the postcolonial history of fire suppression and climate change has altered the fires. They are more intense, more frequent, and more wide-ranging. A renewing force has become an obliterating force. These fires burn so hot, they sterilize the topsoil.

Will Matsuda

Where I live, there are now many smoky days nearly every summer. Everyone checks air-quality apps on their phone constantly. When things get bad, we retreat inside, shut the windows, turn on the fan, play some Zelda. Typically, if the smoke hangs around too long, people who are able to pack up and escape do. They head to the coast, stay with friends, go on an impromptu camping trip, or just spend a Saturday in the mountains above the smoke. This is how we solve problems in the West. We get in our cars and we go.

But while those whose neighborhoods are actively burning are grabbing their duffel bags full of emergency gear and evacuating, most of us sitting in the smoke this week are just sitting in the smoke. For one thing, there’s a viral pandemic happening, and traveling is much riskier and more complicated than usual. My family can’t flee to my mother’s house in Seattle, because she’s 70 years old and has asthma. Every stop for gas or food could be a transmission event. And secondly, very few places from British Columbia to Baja California aren’t bathed in smoke. There’s simply nowhere to go.

As my son said, flinging himself on his bed in his stifling-hot bedroom on a day when the smoke was bad: “I haven’t seen anyone or gone anywhere for six months—and now I can’t even leave the house!” The air inside the grocery store seems alive with a thousand microscopic coronaviruses; the air outside, in the parking lot, is visibly thick with incinerated pines and firs. Every breath is fraught.

Across the West, agricultural, construction, and service workers are forced to breathe in the smoke and the chancy exhalations of customers. There is no healthy, clear place for them to work. The land of big skies and reinvention suddenly feels close, crowded, smothering.

And yet it didn’t have to be this way. Fossil-fuel executives and their favorite politicians knew that their products were going to create the heat and the drought that set the stage for these fires. Their own scientists told them so. They could have guessed that poor folks without air-conditioning and modern tight-sealing windows and desk jobs were going to choke on the ashes. They just didn’t care. And Donald Trump knew that the coronavirus was going to kill Americans, but he “wanted to always play it down” to protect the stock market and his own reelection campaign.

And so we are suffering. Homes are being destroyed; people are dying of the virus. The two crises are amplifying each other in shelters and in our lungs. Hundreds of prison inmates in Oregon have been evacuated because of the fires. Now they are heading to the Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem, where 3,300 people will be housed in a facility that normally has 2,075 beds.

I feel my throat tightening. It’s not the coronavirus or smoke. It’s rage—rage radiating up from my belly and my heart. We’re trapped inside because of the pandemic and because of the fires, but ultimately we are most confined by the inequality, selfishness, and greed that created this moment. Even in the wide-open West, we’re still stuck in the United States of America.

Will Matsuda