A Letter from the Smoke Zone

BY ON November 26, 2018

People looking out at smoke from a wildfire

This was written by Nancy Spencer, an environmental attorney and mom in San Mateo, California:

By nature, I am an optimist. So when the sunlight suddenly turned orange a week ago today and my yard smelled like a campfire, I thought “it’s just a local fire, and they will put it out soon.” Then I got a text from the county saying stop calling 911, the fire is 200 miles from here. That’s how smoky it got — people thought the fire was in their neighborhood. Then the smoke got worse, and most of Northern California began to cough and wheeze, and go to the store for masks. I thought “we’ve been through this before, we know this drill.” It used to be every 3-4 years, and this is the third time in 13 months we’ve had weeks of heavy smoke, but still, we know what to do, it’s not a big deal. As the week went on and the skies got darker, people started following the air quality index, and the satellite images, and the weather forecast, and nervously watching as the AQI inched up from red — unhealthy — to purple — very unhealthy. And then, something happened that has never happened before. Schools and offices closed. Local governments sent out messages telling people to stay inside — millions of people. We are sheltering inside and venturing out in masks, and waiting for a change in the weather that might, perhaps, come in four or five more days. We are prisoners of dirty air.

I’ve spent a career in air quality work, and I’ve seen my share of smoggy days all across our country. But I’ve never experienced anything like this before. It is a stark reminder of what is a stake when clean air protections are attacked and rolled back. These conditions used to happen in many parts of America before the Clean Air Act reduced pollution from cars and power plants and factories, and they can happen again if we lose the public health protections of that landmark law. This year’s megafires bring together two strands of my career — air quality and climate change. The fires that used to come every few years are now coming every few months. Drought and accompanying insect damage have turned our forests to tinder, and they are part of our changing climate. Hotter, drier conditions inevitably lead to more, bigger fires. This is one of several important factors that put us at increasing danger, as we breathe the fine particulate from those fires deep into our lungs where it harms us just like the particulate from burning fossil fuels.

As we in the Bay Area watch our beautiful Golden State temporarily transformed into an apocalyptic landscape, we know it could be worse. We could be among the thousands of people burned out of their homes and workplaces, or worse still, one of the 87 people who lost their lives or their loved ones in the fires. I think particularly of my neighbors whose children have asthma or whose parents are on oxygen. Someday soon, our brave firefighters and their colleagues who have joined them from around the country will get the Camp Fire under control, the winds will shift, and we will go back to complaining about the cold when it drops below 50 degrees. When those carefree days return, we need to remember this bitter lesson about how it feels to be a prisoner of unhealthy air, and do everything in our power to safeguard clean air protections and put the brakes on climate change. The optimist in me has to believe that we will learn from this grim and smoky November.

Editorial credit: BrittanyNY / Shutterstock.com

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TOPICS: Air Pollution, Asthma, California, Children's Health, Clean Air Rules and Regulations, Climate Change, Heat and Extreme Weather, Schools