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I’ve Lived Through Wildfires Before, But Nothing Compares To This: A Letter From The West Coast

In this aerial view from a drone, people walk through a mobile home park destroyed by fire on September 10, 2020 in Phoenix, Oregon. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
In this aerial view from a drone, people walk through a mobile home park destroyed by fire on September 10, 2020 in Phoenix, Oregon. (David Ryder/Getty Images)
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My grandmother died this morning. We knew she was nearing the end as my family celebrated her 100th birthday last week on Zoom. She opened her eyes just twice, each time at the cacophony of loving gibberish from 12 little boxes singing “Happy Birthday,” the melody broken by virtual distance.

I didn’t hug my grandmother, my Nana, in the months before she died. She lived a state away, behind layers of pandemic precautions. Too risky, too far.

I didn’t hug my mother either on the day her mother died. That was unexpected. My parents live just 15 miles away, and since moving home to Oregon earlier this year, I’ve helped them through the transition to virtual work, a COVID scare and the aftermath of a windstorm that felled a tree next to their house, narrowly missing the roof and my mom. That same windstorm spread the fires. Today the sky is orange and the roads are choked with nearby residents evacuating Clackamas County, some for the second or third time in as many days. Better to stay inside. Better to send my mom hugs from afar.

So I sit here, staring out the window at the unnatural sky, reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned unwillingly — lessons from fire, from fear, from grief.

An orange smoke-filled sky is seen above Estacada, Oregon, on September 9, 2020, as fires burn nearby.  (Deborah Bloom/AFP via Getty Images)
An orange smoke-filled sky is seen above Estacada, Oregon, on September 9, 2020, as fires burn nearby.  (Deborah Bloom/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the years, I’ve learned that wildfire smoke comes in different flavors. Of all the fire seasons I lived through in California, the 2018 Camp Fire smoke tasted the worst: the flames engulfed whole towns, steel and paint and plastic swirling in the smoke, the aftertaste of chemicals leaving my throat and eyes burning nearly 200 miles away. I explained the difference to a friend in Portland, where I live, this week. She’s living through her first fire season.

“I can tell the nearby fires have burned mostly forest so far,” I said. “The smoke doesn’t hurt in the same way.” Her eyes widened with horror.

I’ve learned there are masks for pandemics and masks for wildfires. My trusty reusable N95, complete with an air valve and purchased a few fires seasons ago, has been useless to me since the pandemic began because the air valve lets my breath escape. Now, when I go out, I wear two masks layered: my N95 to keep the smoke out, my cloth mask to keep my breath in.

This week, for the first time in all of my fire seasons, I’ve experienced the fear of seeing my childhood home on an evacuation map. But my parents have a car, a place to go, a town and a river between them and the closest flames. We are some of the lucky ones. We’ve never awoken to a pounding on the door. We’ve never returned home to find nothing but ash.

Yet. Fire has taught me to count my blessings.

News from the rest of the world seems distant and surreal. My body feels restless, my mind spirals through smoke-induced limbo.

I’ve learned that time blurs when the world is covered in smoke: no day or night, just yellow-grey, orange-grey, puce-grey, black. It becomes impossible to imagine blue sky, fresh air. News from the rest of the world seems distant and surreal. My body feels restless, my mind spirals through smoke-induced limbo.

I’ve learned in these moments that small things can help: chocolate, showers, fresh vegetables, tea. Satellite images of wildfire smoke are soothing until they’re not; that’s when I know it’s time to get off the internet and drink a glass of water.

Poetry helps too. Weeping over Mary Oliver’s words – “when the time comes to let it go, let it go” — has become a fire season tradition.

I’ve learned I have fire season traditions.

I’ve learned to grasp moments of joy when they’re offered. Two sets of friends this week shared their engagement stories, their love made more precious, more urgent, more vital against the starkness of our collective fear. Another friend sent a gif of a dancing llama. I laughed out loud. The knot in my stomach loosened, just for a moment. I’ve learned to take things just like this: moment by moment.

The author's grandmother, Harriet Eleanor Wilson Pedersen, pictured as a young woman circa 1940 and in 2011. (Courtesy)
The author's grandmother, Harriet Eleanor Wilson Pedersen, pictured as a young woman circa 1940 and in 2011. (Courtesy)

My mind returns to my grandmother. She was born in 1920 in western Minnesota, to my rugged and loving great-grandparents. Two years before her birth, in the midst of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a devastating fire raged across northern Minnesota, burning 250,000 acres and forcing more than 50,000 people from their homes. I imagine my great-grandmother, watching the sky darken from 200 miles away. How did the smoke feel in her throat? What shade of sickly grey smeared across the sun? Did she fashion a mask out of a scrap of cloth? What did she tell her children, my grandmother’s older sisters?

I close my eyes and say a prayer for Nana, who is finally at peace. I imagine my great-grandmother — the brave woman I know only from stories — placing her arm around my shoulders, eyes on the darkening sky and giving me a squeeze.

Love across distance is not the same, but I’ll count my blessings. I pour a glass of wine and call my mother.

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Marta Hanson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Marta Hanson is a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government studying democracy, narrative and civic engagement.

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