Greetings from the Land of 500+ AQI: We’re Holding Our Breath Out Here

My family and I went to the coast Sunday for one reason: To escape the choking smoke in the air.

Brian Prawitz, for CHF | August 31, 2023

My wife’s perpetual smoke induced headache and the depressing, oppressing cloud literally hanging over us was just too much. If even for a few hours, the idea of clean, clear air was too enticing to resist.

Even though we cannot see the fires, and we are not in an evac zone, our cars are covered in small bits of ash, the reminder that somewhere, relatively nearby, fires are burning. Our friends in Tyee/Umpqua and Hubbard Creek are living in evac zones, praying their fate is not the same as their friends in Glide who are still rebuilding from Archie Creek. They’ve seen how this movie can end.

I was thinking of checking on our elderly neighbors down the street, but I am not sure what we could do to help them. I was thinking about things I could do around the house to protect my family, but as long as the air filter in our HVAC is relatively new, I am not sure there is anything I can do to relieve them.

Most of the time when it’s smoky, I hear everyone else complaining. Most of the time, the smoke is a temporary, minor annoyance. But this time, I also have a headache. My throat hurts and for the past week, when I blow my nose, it’s like I was sitting by a campfire over a long weekend. Our clothes stink and even our dogs seem depressed. I heard from a teacher friend of mine that the fire alarm went off yesterday not because of a sneaky troublemaker pulling the alarm, but from the smoke in the air inside their elementary school.

I feel like an alarm has been going off in my head since the smoke socked in. I think it’s the same for many people. The smoke affects our ability to process information because somewhere in our psyche our brains know something is really wrong. Maybe it’s fight or flight kicking in. Or a lack of oxygen? Whatever is happening, you simply cannot ignore it and carry on. The air is thick, dark, white, and everywhere.

Again, am I whining about a minor thing? I think about the studies that show the particulates in smoke are far more dangerous than at first thought. Somewhere in my consciousness I have to wonder if this temporary status will have long term effects on our lives. Will this be like Agent Orange for Vietnam vets who develop horrific health issues later in life that come from something we are all told won’t hurt us? What about mesothelioma? Or the impact on the young children and infants who have to breathe this same air? How long will it take for this to impact their tender lungs?

I also know that in our forests, massive amounts of dry fuels and flammable brush choke the remote areas where lightning strikes pounded the ground last week. This past spring I walked with foresters who pointed out the tons of dead, dry material awaiting a spark, and the thousands of snags that will also fuel the next fire.

I am literally breathing that debris, which could have been removed, and those bushes, which prevent seedlings from taking root. The worst part of the situation is that it is all preventable.

Had fuel reduction projects been approved, downed trees and snags from previous fires would have been removed. Had salvage operations been adopted as best practices for federal forestlands, there would be much less tinder on the ground when the storms came through.

Obviously our issues with smoke pale in comparison to what our friends in Lahaina, or Paradise, or Phoenix/Talent, or Glide have endured. Losing loved ones, your home, and the billions of dollars in damage that have come from fire are clearly more destructive and traumatic than a week (or ten days, or two weeks) of smoke. There is no comparison.

But this situation is also destructive. To daily life. To school. To tourism. To our livelihoods. And what our situation has in common with the communities that have burned is this: it is truly preventable. Yet, it is not being prevented.

Would things be different if the US Capital was in Portland, or Eugene, or Weed? If our elected officials had to evacuate their homes, and move their families and lives to avoid a wildfire, or breathed this smoke for two weeks or more every summer by golly they would find a solution. Fast.

The solutions are there. Hanging over our leaders like a cloud of smoke while we hold our breath awaiting change.

Instead, here we are in the land of 500+ AQI, waiting for a fresh system of wind and rain to push this smoke away, and help extinguish these nearby fires. As it stands, practices and games for the opening games of the new school year are postponed, our friends and neighbors stay inside, and the fires continue to burn. By the way, the AQI number was as high as 742 near our home the other day. But 500 is as high as the scale goes, according to Laura Gleim of the DEQ, who told OPB “Above 500 is off of that scale,” Gleim said. “It doesn’t mean the monitors can’t display higher than that, it just means the health categories haven’t been set up to go beyond that.”

The fires usually smolder until the snow flies. I wonder what this smoke is doing to all of us, and whether our health – like that of our forests – will ever be the same.

Brian Prawitz is a former Roseburg City Councilor who is on the CHF staff. In his time in Roseburg, Oregon, and Missoula, Montana, Brian figures he has lived in at least 26 weeks of heavy smoke from wildfire.