Thoughts on Wildfires From a Very Smoky Portland

Wednesday, 9/9/20 at 4 PM in SE PDX

On Wednesday night I was supposed to meet a girlfriend for a drink at an outside pop-up bar in our neighborhood. Since moving back to Portland in June, I have slowly started seeing friends at socially distanced outdoor venues and I have even gotten used to the new normal of sitting six-feet apart and wearing our masks except when taking a sip of coffee or a cocktail.

Around 2 PM my friend texted me to confirm our plans and I double-checked the bike route to get to the pop-up bar. I haven't biked much outside of the gym since moving back, and I was excited to take the opportunity to used to biking in the city again. Then around 4 PM I started to notice the sky getting dark from my North-facing window and went up to the roof to see what was going on. I knew there was a possibility of smoke blowing into the city from wildfires to the South of us, but I assumed it would be similar to three years ago during the Eagle Creek fire when we had some hazy skies that quickly cleared up. As soon as I saw the dark plume of smoke blowing in from the South, I knew this would be worse than the Eagle Creek fire, although I still had no idea what was coming. I texted my friend to postpone our drinks that night, lamenting that we couldn't move our plans inside because of concerns about COVID-19 and wondering what else this year has in store for us.

By that evening, a thick cloud of smoke settled over the city. I went downstairs to check the mail and was shocked to realize that our hallways already smelled like smoke. I later learned, after I and the rest of the Portland metro area all become overnight experts on air quality, that the smoke in the hallway was likely due to the air conditioning unit pulling in air from outside for the system. Unfortunately, we're currently on day six of unsafe air quality and my apartment unit has not changed the settings on the system and our hallways are still rank with smoke. We instead received an email on day three from our apartment manager advising us to line the bottom of our doors with towels to prevent smoke from getting in - something we did on night one.

Wednesday, 9/9/20 at 4 PM in SE PDX
Thursday, 9/10/20 at 2 PM in SE PDX

I woke up at 6 AM Thursday morning to find my bedroom bathed in yellow light. I hadn't slept well the night before - every noise on our busy street was somehow extra alarming with the threat of wildfires and toxic smoke encroaching on our city. Throughout the rest of the day the sky changed color slightly, but mostly stayed a hazy yellow color. We haven't yet had orange skies in San Francisco - and I hope we don't - but it's still an unnerving scene to find out your window. It reminds me of a TV special I saw in high school with my parents about what was then called global warming. The special, which was probably run by PBS or NBC, started with an animated short story about a family with a young child navigating the changes brought on by global warming. I only remember bits and pieces of the special, but I remember feeling thrilled by it. As a kid, my parents watched the 6:30 nightly news every night and I assumed every adult did the same, so I also assumed everyone was watching this global warming special. The animated short laid the impacts of climate change out so clearly to me, and I was excited. After all, who watching could possibly not be convinced that we need to prevent the seas from rising and swallowing whole cities? And that we need to stop polluting the planet so that our air and water don't become toxic and dangerous?

Of course, that TV special on global warming did not have the impact that my young teenage self was hoping for. However, it did help open my eyes to the threat of global warming, and I've spent much of my life since then studying and working towards preventing climate change. So, I knew things like this would happen. I knew that our planet reached 1 degree Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels in 2019. I knew wildfires would get worse - but I didn't know about the impact of wildfire smoke and hazardous air. I didn't know that millions of people on the West Coast would be subjected to hazardous air quality for days on end during the same year that a respiratory pandemic swept the globe.

I suppose the real lesson that I learned from spending a full week barricaded inside from wildfire smoke, macgyvering makeshift filters with my box fan and a pillowcase, is that there is so much we do not know about how climate change will impact us. All of the climate models in the world cannot truly prepare us for the human impact of climate change, and while that is scary, I hope that it will galvanize more people into action. And, since we're mere weeks from the 2020 presidential election, I feel compelled to close this story out with a plea to vote for the only candidate with sensible climate legislation on November 3rd, Joe Biden.

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