A week ago, I had no idea what a good AQI number was nor that Woodhaven typically basks in deliciously healthy AQIs of 20 or so.
This morning’s number is currently 381. I quietly celebrated that it is finally below 400 for the first time in an eternity (actually 4 days).
The past week has been unexpectedly challenging. And one full of desperate attempts to remain grateful and hopeful.
One week ago today, the areas around Portland, Oregon were preparing for a potentially historic windstorm. The speed of the wind was anticipated to be a typical winter storm. What made it historic was the timing.
Hot, dry winds from the east blowing over terrain that hasn’t had rain in over a month (pretty much a drought by Pacific Northwest standards), bending trees still full with leaves had many people very concerned about potentially devastating fires.
The concern became reality in a matter of hours.
For a few days, while the east wind still howled and leaves from Idaho continued gathering in our yard, we watched an enormous smoke plume rise like a thunderstorm 60 miles to our south.
The beautifully wooded Oregon landscape, dotted with small rural communities and so much livestock, was on fire. Towns were overcome, evacuations were rampant, and in some cases the first responders had to abandon the posts they were protecting in order to avoid becoming death statistics.
Shortly later, a fire started to our north, in the rough terrain of heavily treed wilderness. It wasn’t threatening any populations, until it was. Just yesterday communities not far from Woodhaven were finally told to simply be “Ready” to evacuate (have plans) instead of being “Set” (livestock already relocated, bags and cars packed, set to flee at a moment’s notice).
Last Thursday, we woke up to news that there was a vegetation fire within walking distance of Woodhaven. An angel of an early riser had noticed it at 4:51am and called it in. Three fire engines and two water tenders responded. The County Fire Marshal and a Battalion Chief also showed up, with other equipment on stand-by. In less than two unnerving hours, the fire was out. No structures were threatened. Only some charred bushes and a tree trunk remain as humbling reminders of how close we came to joining so many others in utter devastation.
|We have no idea how it started. |
We are just immensely grateful
it ended quickly.
Friday morning, I woke up in the 2:00am hour overwhelmed by nausea and dizziness. Despite closed windows and no running air vents, Woodhaven was…and still is…slowly filling with wildfire smoke.
The destructive east winds that fueled the fires had thankfully shifted, slowly reducing the fire danger to more manageable levels. But the winds now slowly wisping from the west meant that all that smoke that had been blown over the Pacific Ocean was now coming back to visit. And like the completely unwelcomed and uninvited houseguest that it is, it refuses to leave.
The air is stagnant and yellowish. Visibility has at times not extended past our 5 acres. A few days ago it was reported that the smoke above us is 8,000-9,000 feet thick. Thanks to a resulting inversion layer (the meteorological event when cold air gets trapped below warm air), what should be days in the mid-80s have instead been in the mid-60s. Our heater is on and I am wearing lounge pants for the first time in months. All while cooling fans try to filter our interior air.
|At times we can't even see the closest trees.|
With the totally-taken-for-granted ability to always open our windows for fresh (if not damp) air, we have never owned an air purifier. Our bad. Thanks to a plea for tips on Facebook, we have been running a MacGyvered air purifier consisting of a box fan, a furnace filter, and blue painter’s tape. Blue tape is also sealing gaps around an exterior door that I am now acutely aware needs new weather stripping. We are all sorts of klassy here at smoked-out Woodhaven.
|I've named this apparatus Merv. He's 11.|
See below for details.
Better filters are on order, me now having learned the existence and importance of a high MERV rating (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values that indicate a filter's ability to snag pollution particles – and 13, by the way). Amazon couldn’t get the filters here any faster than this coming Friday. When we ordered them, I assumed (wished? hoped? prayed?) that would be too late to be useful. Sadly now I’m not so sure.
In addition to Merv, I also have a humidifier going, I’m drinking tons of water, and I am wearing a wet dish towel on my face. I also have a crock pot simmering on our coffee table, currently just filled with water and lemon juice. I would love to also have a pot simmering on our stove, but sadly we have a cooktop with a down draft. Years ago during a cold snap, I made a long bean bag to cover the exhaust vent to keep cold air from filling our kitchen. It’s currently doing a nice job of keeping the smoke at bay, but any use of the cooktop means I have to uncover the vent and allow smoke to stream in. First world smoke problems. And a valid excuse not to cook. So at least that.
|Conveniently, I am accustomed to wearing a mask.|
Two days ago, our favorite contractor offered to loan us one of his industrial air cleaners since it was just sitting in his shop waiting for something to do. When Mel delivered it, I was nearly in tears from gratitude. Finally, I would be able to breathe some cleanish, healthish air! And it was indeed lovely. For about 22 hours. The HEPA filter about the size of a riding mower tire is already full, the machine deflating me with its blinking ERROR message.
|The white thing is a filter coozie. The dirty|
filter itself is snuggled inside.
This morning, with the toddler-sized air scrubber now just a novelty for the cats to sniff, I woke up in the 3:00am hour with the return of nausea and dizziness. They have been joined by their Smoke Inhalation friends named Burning Eyes, Tight Chest, and Sore Throat. It’s quite a party.
I have an app on my phone (loaded last week) that tells me the location of various emergency calls around our county. Downed wires, traffic collisions, fire alarms, vegetation fires, medical emergencies. I relied on it heavily when the fire broke out at the end of our street. I have been noticing the past few days a concerning rise in medical emergency calls. All over the county. Many many at a time. I can only assume they are related to breathing issues.
When I was putting our evacuation-ready suitcases away yesterday…travel buddies that hadn’t left their closet since February because, oh that’s right! There’s also a pandemic!…I noticed that the guest room that they live in had better air. The benefit of only one window, closed air vents, and a cat-detracting door that is always kept shut. I might end up living in the guest room for the week until our AQI numbers come down to at least the flat-lipped “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” level. Beats my other thought of holing up in our small walk-in closet, which currently has the very best air in all of Woodhaven.
I really need to do laundry. And we should have vacuumed as part of our Storm Prep. Neither of these chores is a good idea at the moment, for fear they will bring in air from the outside if not the garage. So Woodhaven is not just smoky; it’s in desperate need of some basic care that just can’t happen right now.
The past week has been quite a test of sanity. I often encourage struggling friends not to compare themselves to other people so as not to invalidate their own experience…but it is still hard not to feel some guilt and overwhelming confusion about still having our home and our town when so many in the Pacific Northwest no longer do.
I am trying hard to remain optimistic, staring at a photo taken from our back door a couple of years ago reminding me of what will be again. As a friend in even more smoke-choked Eugene commented, “You could almost drink that air.”
|Breathe in. Hold. Slowly exhale. Repeat.|
The inability to simply step outside and take a deep breath of clean air is emotionally suffocating. There is a feeling of being trapped. And the weather forecast has the key to set us free. It keeps changing, the forecast. And not in a good way. Much like most of 2020, I waver between wanting to be informed and wanting to be in denial. Lalalalalalala.
I have dreamed of getting on an airplane, both to escape somewhere unsmoked as well as to simply breath the freshly filtered cabin air. I have plans…that if we happen to clear out earlier due to our 750ft elevation…to encourage local friends to bring a lawn chair and simply sit on our lawn and breathe. It calms me to imagine sitting in a chair on Woodhaven’s green grass, friends in their chairs scattered around at large distances, all of us just quietly, blissfully, gratefully breathing.
I know the day will come. That day when the smoke blows away and the sky is blue and the air is clean and I am no longer afraid to breathe. Please, God, let that day come soon.