Living with Smoke and Fire

by Molly Brown

In Siskiyou County, we have now been living with smoke since July 5.  We have only seen our mountains a few times since lightning started the Nachez Fire to the northwest.  It got much worse when the Carr Fire blew up.  Now whatever way the wind blows, we get smoke.

I’ve been experiencing a primal fear from the smoke and filtered yellow sunlight. My body is saying “Danger! Look out!”  This is not the first time I’ve been in smoke from nearby fires, growing up and living in Northern New Mexico, southwest Colorado, and now here for 14 years.  So what’s making this so much more fearful?

Maybe the fire in Redding—following last year’s huge fires in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties and in Ventura and Ojai—has cut through my complacency.  I finally get on a visceral level that a wildfire could ravage my own house and town at any time.  It seems more like “when” rather than “if,”  considering the drought conditions and high temperatures.

And there’s no hiding place, nowhere to go that is safe in today’s world of climate chaos.  While we’re in high fire season throughout the West, the East Coast is flooding.

I am so much more comfortable and secure than my neighbors in Redding or Hornbrook—and so many other people throughout the world.  I know I am one of the lucky ones.  I may suffer some anxiety from week after week of smoke, but I still live in a functioning home, with stores nearby to supply almost every need.

This is how the smoke has affected me: lethargy, fatigue, low grade physical discomfort, low motivation to do various tasks around the house or connected to my work, forgetfulness, and confusion.  These symptoms could be a result of psychological impacts, the toxins I’m breathing in, and/or my age, or all of the above. I think it is important to notice these effects and take them into account.  I am trying not to expect myself or others to function as well as we usually do; I am trying to be gentle and compassionate with myself and others, even while I do what I can to mitigate these effects.

I believe more and more of us are likely to experience similar impacts in the days and years ahead, even if we escape the worst of the ongoing disasters.  Business-as-usual just doesn’t work anymore.  Neither does “getting back to normal.”  Collectively and individually, I believe we need to face the hard cold (or hot) fact that we are in a time of crisis and radical change.  And crisis and change rarely come without suffering and emotional impact on everyone, not just the ones most affected.

It has helped to take some obvious steps that I’ve neglected up until now: making sure our important papers are up to date and readily at hand, planning what we would grab and what leave behind, putting gallon jugs of water in the car, and putting together a “go-bag.”  It helped to call our insurance company and check out our coverage.  It helped enormously when our neighbor cleared ladder fuel from behind his back fence and continued his efforts behind ours.

Perhaps what helped me the most was looking around my house at all my beloved possessions and imagining having to let them go.  It would be heart-breaking and I know I would survive.  I think this kind of letting go will be essential as we face the unknowable and probably terrifying changes that the climate, economic, political, social crises will bring.  We will need to get down to the essentials of life that will help us survive and even thrive:  love, friendship, generosity, compassion, courage, caring for one another (friend and stranger alike), connection to Spirit (however we conceive that dimension), and our radical interconnectedness within the whole web of life.