What does it mean to live in America's Pacific states? Smoke, a lot of smoke, enough that it is changing the way of life, perhaps unalterably. That's discussed in an essay/book review by McKenzie Funk in The London Review of Books.
The author, his wife, two young boys and their middle-age dog left Seattle for the town of Ashland, Oregon, just north of the California border. It was a watery-eye opener. Here are a few excerpts you might find thought provoking.
The town we were moving to is called Ashland. It’s beautiful, a surprise cluster of civilisation just north of Oregon’s border with California, where restaurants and shops and stately wooden houses sit at the foot of a forested mountain range called the Siskiyous. It has twenty thousand residents but swells during the academic year with students and in warmer months with tourists, many of them here for the summer-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There are flower-filled parks, excellent schools, people riding carbon-fibre mountain bikes, retirees driving luxury cars, travellers with dreadlocks, nice dogs reliably on leashes. Restaurants and real estate agencies line Main Street. People in Ashland are often from somewhere else, and they pay good money to be here. The town’s economy relies, above everything else, on its quality of life.
...Jenny liked the old house we ended up with. We moved her in one June weekend, the boys crawling in and out of the doors of the secret closet in their new bedroom. She would live here alone for the first month, riding her bike to and from the university, eating at the grocery co-op, revelling in the fact that in a small town everything is ten minutes from everything else. The boys and I returned to Seattle, and wrapped up our existence there. ‘We’re going to need new sunglasses for the boys,’ Jenny told me early on. It was always sunny. The air was so crisp. It was so easy to get around. We’d be spending a lot of time outside. Then, a week before we were to drive the nine hours down Interstate 5 and finally join her, bad news: ‘The smoke started,’ she said. ‘It came early this year.’ Although there was little imminent danger of its spreading to Ashland, the nearest fire – the result of a lightning strike near Hells Peak – was just nine miles from our new home.
... Disasters like the conflagration that consumed Paradise, California, in November, killing 81 people – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history – do happen. But the climate disaster facing millions of other residents of the American West is more insidious. In a town like Ashland, the smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burn diminution of the way life here used to be.
On the afternoon the boys and I arrived the town and the Rogue Valley where it sits were surrounded by nine separate wildfires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States: 321 on the Air Quality Index. The AQI scale is colour-coded – green-yellow-orange-red-purple-maroon – to denote health risk, and we were well into maroon, or ‘hazardous’. Outside, the air was totally still and the temperature had hit 100°F. It looked like dusk in the middle of the day. Inside, the boys’ upstairs room was like a furnace, but we couldn’t open the skylights for fear of letting the smoke in. We rushed out to buy an air-conditioning unit. At the hardware store down the road, we got the last child-size smoke masks on the shelves, the ones rated N95 for the particulate matter the internet said we really needed to keep out of their lungs. Prepping for the unknown, we ordered a dozen more masks from China on Amazon.
...I tried to walk the dog whenever the air looked best, helped by the AQI app I’d downloaded to my phone, and I grew used to wearing my smoke mask in public, grunting muffled hellos to other pedestrians in masks of their own, fellow travellers in the apocalypse. It began to feel normal. In the café where I went to work on my laptop, I noticed how routine this existence was becoming for others, too. Walk in, take off mask, order coffee. Put mask back on, walk out. In Seattle, I had always taken my rain jacket when I went outside. Here, one had to remember the smoke mask. Your baselines shift. You adapt.
By the end of the week, however, our younger son, then three, had developed a rough cough. I took him to a clinic, and the next day we decided to get him and his brother out of Ashland until the smoke had gone. I loaded up the car again and drove the boys and the dog four hours north-east to the other side of the Cascade Mountains, where my extended family had a cabin. We were climate refugees, I joked, escaping to higher elevations and latitudes in search of a more hospitable environment. The six-year-old asked me what ‘refugee’ meant, and I had to explain, but told him I didn’t really mean it. All we could honestly claim was a new-found feeling of dislocation, of being stuck between lives.One of the author's assignments, while in refuge, was to write a review of Eric Struzik's book, "Firestorm," about the megafire that hit Fort Mac.
...In Canada, the average area affected annually has doubled since global temperatures began their abrupt rise in the 1970s, and it is likely to double again by 2050. Quoting a favourite scientist, Mike Flannigan, Struzik lays out the three simple reasons for this. First, warmer temperatures mean drier forests. Second, warmer temperatures mean more lightning strikes. Third, warmer temperatures mean longer fire seasons. Struzik centres his story on the Horse River Fire, also known as the ‘Beast’, which struck Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada’s tar-sands capital, in 2016. It spread across 1.5 million acres, destroyed 2500 homes and 12,000 vehicles, and forced 88,000 residents to flee. The firestorm was of such ferocity it created its own weather patterns, including lightning strikes that set off smaller fires to herald its approach. The irony of the fire’s location wasn’t lost on Struzik. ‘Behind us glowed the lights of fossil fuel-driven human activity,’ he wrote of a night spent in the burned-out forest not far from the site of the $7.3 billion tar-sands project, ‘emitting greenhouse gases that are warming the climate and triggering atmospheric disturbances, driving wildfire to burn bigger, faster, hotter, and more often.’
Struzik describes how Fort McMurray residents escaped from the Beast while bureaucrats were still fighting over how to respond; dives into the scientific mystery of the fire’s lightning-producing pyrocumulonimbus clouds, or pyroCbs...Expanding the extraction, transportation and export of bitumen suddenly sounds a bit less brilliant, doesn't it? Pyrocumulonimbus - there's your new word for the day.
Then he moved to another book, Ashley Dawson's "Extreme Cities."
We have built our megacities – 13 of the largest twenty are ports – in sinking river deltas. Half of the world’s population already lives close to the sea, and now more people, fleeing rural drought or poverty, are moving there. ‘Two great tides are converging on the world’s cities,’ Dawson writes. ‘The first of these is a human tide. In 2007, humanity became a predominantly city-dwelling species.’ The second tide, of course, is the literal one: the rising seas, which may be metres higher by the end of the century.Meanwhile, back at home in Ashland:
Jenny was still stuck in class in Ashland in the smoke. Now she drove an air-conditioned car to and from the university with the windows rolled up, and her bike sat idle. I kept checking my AQI app. Smoke was still choking the Rogue Valley, and haze spread from other fires to the rest of the Pacific Northwest as the summer dragged on. The boys and I stayed away from Ashland until the end of August, when the AQI edged more frequently into the yellow zone and their school year began and I dressed them in smoke masks and new shoes and took them to meet their teachers.
There was no distinct moment when the smoke stopped. But in September it was more often the case that when the wind blew it away, it didn’t get blown right back again. We went outside with sunglasses on. We kept waiting for the hills to disappear again, for our fragile string of yellow and green days to turn orange, but eventually we realised it was over. Now we could assess the damage. That month, regional vineyards got a letter from a major buyer, a California winery, saying that their contracts were cancelled due to ‘smoke taint’. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, engine of the local economy, announced that the smoke had cost it at least $2 million in lost ticket revenue. The knock-on effects on hotels, shops and restaurants amounted to many millions more, and a few businesses closed down. For me, it hadn’t been nearly that bad. I’d lost some savings and some time, but suddenly the air was crisp and the boys were at school and I could sit and type for uninterrupted hours.
... In Ashland, the mountain lion disappeared from town and the Shakespeare festival laid off a few dozen employees. State and federal fire officials traded barbs in the local newspaper, which started running a countdown clock to the 2019 fire season. A local lawmaker proposed that college students should take a year off to work on tree-thinning projects. The bookstore I frequented was put up for sale, but I overheard two long-time patrons predicting that there would be no serious bids. ‘Ashland’s not what it used to be,’ one said. My younger son learned to ride a bike in the sun in the park just down the block. My older son started playing soccer, and by the pitch one morning another parent told me about a campsite near the Pacific that filled with local families every summer once the smoke began. ‘Maybe we’ll be like Europeans,’ he said. ‘Everyone will just leave every August.’ It almost sounded reasonable.This essay describes conditions common to the people of the Pacific coast from Mexico all the way north into Alaska. Even out here on this island in the Pacific, fronts of smoke come from mainland wildfires to blanket our homes. I had to invest in air purification this year so that I could have air fit to breathe indoors. Like the author's wife, Jenny, there are months where you don't go outside because this particulate matter, PM 2.5, gets into your tissues, embeds in your lungs.
And yet those death-dealing banshees in Alberta rage like madmen, threatening us if we dare block their pipelines to our, not theirs but ours, tidewater.