The smoke arrived in Portland on Labor Day in a sudden windstorm. The sun faded and filled the late afternoon with a yellow light, and then the light was gone. The wind stank.
Growing up out west, I have witnessed wildfires before. I was assigned to one as a young journalist for the Sacramento Bee in 2012. But this month, some 1 million acres have burned in Oregon, an extraordinary figure. Towns have been destroyed, including several along the North Santiam River. Eight people are confirmed dead, and 16 are classified as missing.
Extreme winds from the east after a few weeks of unusually dry weather caused the fires. Yet poor forestry practices and a warming climate created the conditions for the blazes to spread down the wetter, western slopes of the Cascades, where wildfire is uncommon due to rainfall, and toward the state’s urban areas.
The morning after the storm was clear, but the wind continued, and the power was still intermittent. The smoke returned that afternoon. Fires were burning in my parents’ county, where I was raised. Looking north from my parents’ suburban house, the sky was blue, but a roiling mass of fumes filled the rest of it, the purple of a bruise near the southern horizon. A warning was issued to prepare to leave, which was disconcerting enough, even though no evacuation would be ordered. My parents could not remember anything of the kind in the decades they had lived there.
The next morning, on Wednesday, the wind had calmed. The sun was a wan red disc in an utterly featureless expanse, a blank void of sky. I could feel the acrid air stinging my throat after a few steps outdoors.
I stayed inside my apartment. That day, and the following day, and the day after, there was no alteration in the dim and unchanging light to remind me of the passing of time, no shadows on the wall to suggest the coming of afternoon. Each evening, dusk came as a welcome surprise when the sky’s filthy ocher vanished into night. A few blocks away, the hardware store was sold out of air purifiers. Like many other businesses, the store closed early, sending employees home at 2 p.m. to spare their lungs.
My brother and sister in law, who live across the city, complained of headaches. Their children were confined to the house. Playing outside was not fun at all, and visiting friends had not been allowed since March.
The wildfires, which burned mostly uncontrolled throughout last week, have been especially hard for children. The smoke interrupted municipal services, including deliveries of free and reduced-price school lunches to children who have been eating them at home this year. Portland’s schools, of course, are closed on account of the virus.
Meanwhile, the risk of infection has almost certainly increased for the roughly 40,000 people who have been evacuated in this state. They are crowding in with friends or relatives or sleeping under tarps in temporary camps, which the authorities have been forced to move repeatedly as the fires grew. At the same time, the testing rate for coronavirus has declined by more than a third, according to the Oregonian.
All these factors suggest that the fires are likely to accelerate the spread of the virus – just as, across the state line in California, the virus accelerated the spread of the flames. California has long relied on prison labor to combat wildfire. But as the New York Times reported, the pandemic forced the state to release inmates to avoid outbreaks in prison this spring. Too few prisoners were left behind to control this summer’s blazes.
Up and down the West Coast, this year’s fires are demonstrating the interdependence of landscapes, pathogens, and human institutions. The natural and the social are terrifyingly inseparable.
Over the weekend, the smoke moistened and paled to a dull gray. Visibility was worse – from my apartment, I could see headlights coming over the interstate bridge across the Willamette River, but not the bridge itself. Yet at least the hue and the smell of the air had improved. Crews have reportedly made some progress in containing the fires, but there is lightning and more wind in the forecast, and still the smoke has not cleared.