Now we can’t even go outside. Here, in the first region of the U.S. hit by the coronavirus pandemic—where we’ve been told to avoid human touch longer than anywhere else, to contain ourselves within six-foot bubbles when outside—we can no longer venture from our homes at all. Thanks to the wildfires raging in California, Oregon, and Washington, stepping outdoors, according to health officials, may be harmful. In the past few days, Portland, by one measure, has ranked No. 1 for the worst air quality on earth. Seattle has ranked No. 2. The claustrophobia is matched only by the dizzying sight of the smoke itself.
It’s everywhere. Smoke hovers right outside the living-room window, creeps low along the sidewalk, curls up the trunks of maple trees that line the streets and clings to their branches. Smoke droops through downtown Seattle and blots out the tops of skyscrapers. It crawls up the inclined avenues and consumes the handful of blocks formerly known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. It floats above Elliott Bay and the far reaches of Puget Sound, the islands seemingly disappearing in puffs, like in a magician’s trick. Down Interstate 5, the smoke swallows Tacoma and Olympia and grows thicker the farther south you drive. It envelops Portland, where the sky glows orange. Or is it yellow? All over, the colors are off. Shadows don’t behave according to any familiar law of physics. It’s noon, but it looks like dusk. If the sun peeks through, it’s a red dot that you can stare at with the naked eye. You go woozy with the implication.
When the confinement becomes too much to bear, we open our front doors, just a crack. We taste the smoke. It pinches the backs of our throats. It’s the smell of campfire, but divorced from memories of marshmallows or falling stars. In place of nostalgia is the knowledge that at least thirty-three people are dead. Hundreds of homes are destroyed. Entire towns are ash. In Oregon, some five hundred thousand people, or ten per cent of the state’s population, were ordered either to evacuate or to prepare to receive an order.
More than three million acres have burned in California, as have a million-plus in Oregon and half a million more in Washington. The mind boggles at that mass just disappearing, until you realize where it went. We’re breathing much of it in. Winds from the south pushed the massive, cyclone-like smoke cloud—the cumulation of fires in all three West Coast states—as far north as British Columbia. As with the arrival of the coronavirus earlier this year, the smoke brought with it new terminology that has entered our local vocabulary: air-quality index, or A.Q.I.; particulate matter; red (“unhealthy”), purple (“very unhealthy”), maroon (“hazardous”). Obsessively checking the daily A.Q.I. color is the new obsessively checking daily COVID-19 cases.
It’s cliché at this point to grouse about what an epically awful year 2020 has been: the virus, lost jobs, economic ruin, the murder of Black men and women at the hands of police, civil unrest, uncertainty about the upcoming Presidential election. I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that, in the Pacific Northwest, it feels as if some of these traumas have come with extra bite. As the first U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, we were reluctant trailblazers, watching dozens of our seniors wheeled off to what then seemed a novel death. Our store windows were the first to be replaced with plywood, our streets the first to empty. Later, when we demonstrated for Black lives, we were among the first to be characterized as terrorists by the President and his allies—and shown, again and again, that when we do protest we’ll most certainly be doused and choked with pepper spray.
Now we choke on a new particulate. The reasons for the scale of these wildfires matter—climate change, generations of faulty forest-management policies—but this moment, for now, is about survival. In Oregon, the director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management warned that we were looking at a “mass-fatality event.” Dozens of Oregonians remain missing. In Washington, Governor Jay Inslee described scenes around the state as “apocalyptic.”
The advice to stay indoors is sound. The truth is, though, there’s no escape. Even with the windows closed, the eyes still burn. The throat catches. Somehow, the wildfire smoke seeps in. Every cough issues like a clue: Is it the smoke or do I have the virus? And that’s just for those privileged enough to be confined to a house or apartment. There are thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Pacific Northwest cities, stuck out in the haze, not to mention all those who are displaced or injured by the fires, or both. Over the weekend came a sliver of hope. The National Weather Service predicted that colder temperatures and rain showers would arrive from the coast on Sunday night or early Monday morning, enough to wipe out much of the smoke.
After days inside, we thought, we’ll finally venture out. That long-avoided jog could happen. Some of the longest TV binges of our lives would mercifully cease. But, on Monday, N.W.S. announced that the forecast didn’t pan out. “At this point,” the service informed us in a statement, “it doesn’t appear there will be much improvement today.” For the rest of the week, conditions will likely remain “very unhealthy,” even “hazardous” in some areas. Maybe for much longer. Through a virus mask, or a cloud of tear gas, or the now ever-present yellow miasma of wildfire smoke, in the Pacific Northwest, it will be a while before we breathe easy.