When Living in California Means Fearing the Outdoors
When air quality gets bad from wildfires, people are left clinging to their air purifiers.,
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s early June, and the weeds have been brown for weeks.
Every weekday after dawn I run a few miles around a large parking lot that’s been converted to a coronavirus vaccination clinic. When the air is clear and the light is right, you can glimpse the Pacific Ocean three miles to the west. Fog often obscures the view. And on some days, so does smoke, blowing in from distant and not so distant wildfires.
A few miles east, in an industrial corner of San Francisco not far from a Superfund site, a herd of goats lives next to a native plant nursery. The goats function as ecologically friendly weed control, rented out to public agencies and private citizens eager to clear their land of tinder. With California still coping with drought after two exceptionally dry winters, a mere ember can erupt into a conflagration.
Thanks to the weather havoc caused at least partly by warming temperatures, climate change has produced not only dry weather in California; the phrase “atmospheric river” — essentially a massive rainstorm — has recently entered our lexicon. The combination of these storms and fire-ravaged landscapes has caused an increase in catastrophic mudslides. Still, for many people in California, the primary experience of climate change is drought. And drought means wildfires.
These fires now affect tens of millions of Californians, including those of us who live far from the wildland-urban interface where some of the state’s largest blazes have begun. The Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, Calif., flared up in November 2018 — November, when rain boots and umbrellas would normally be permanent fixtures in many California entryways. The Camp Fire was so big, you could see the smoke from space. It spread throughout the state, including to San Francisco, 175 miles away, where it found a comfortable home above the San Francisco Bay and decided to just hang out for a while.
The city recorded some of its worst air quality ever, and relief was scarce. Public libraries, equipped with the air conditioning that many San Francisco homes lack, filled with people seeking a breathable place to work or study. Our chests hurt from the smoke. Schools closed because their HVAC systems could not provide children with clean air. Discouraged from outdoor exercise, we turned to YouTube for fitness inspiration.
When the Camp Fire began, I bought an air purifier and had it shipped to my then-office, an old warehouse building with giant windows that never closed completely and, critically, no air conditioning. When the device arrived, I immediately unpacked it and plugged it in at my desk, hoping somewhat futilely that it would provide some relief. Several co-workers swarmed in awe and envy, eager to inhale. I might as well have been offering free cookies or Bitcoins.
This is what it’s like to live in California now. The air purifier, a shiny black thing that looks like a giant iPod shuffle and is not exactly my preferred interior design aesthetic, lives in my dining room, a beacon of our circumstances. I was lucky to get it: Every time there’s a wildfire dozens or hundreds of miles away, the local hardware stores run out of purifiers.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly 30 years, but only since 2017 can I remember experiencing periodic episodes of bad air quality. When there’s a fire, we see it in the haze over the bay and smell it in the air. Smoke can obscure houses a few blocks away. Locals debate which smartphone apps deliver the most reliable air quality data. We keep the windows shut and move the air purifier from room to room. When the smoke clears, we wipe ash from our cars. We use scarce water resources to hose down plants because their climate-improving photosynthesis is impaired by climate-caused dust.
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, I understood that a drought meant that I couldn’t let the water run in the sink while I brushed my teeth. Today’s California children feel our now-permanent drought far more acutely. There are the thousands who have fled active fire or have lost their homes, schools, pets, loved ones or lives. And then there are children who live dozens or hundreds of miles from the land already scarred by fire or in danger of succumbing to it. When Covid-19 hit, my wife and I didn’t have to teach our tween how to wear a mask. He already knew, thanks to the N95s we’d stashed in our earthquake kit to filter wildfire smoke.
We gave most of the N95s away to health care workers last spring, but we still stow a few in bedside tables and our car. It seems certain we’ll need them soon. As of June 1, 74 percent of California was considered to be in extreme or exceptional drought conditions. In the first five months of this year, four times as many acres burned in California as did in the same period in 2020.
As I write this there’s a wildfire burning two counties away, in an area full of redwood trees. My family has camped in the area many times — picture the Ewok forest in “Return of the Jedi.” It’s the kind of environment where children collect banana slugs (search that phrase at your own risk), where you wear four layers to sleep and wake up in a tent that’s soaked from condensed fog.
Still, that area knows about fire: It burned last September, when smoke from blazes to the north, east and south of San Francisco was so thick that one Wednesday, the sun did not appear to rise. We’d been stuck inside for months because of Covid, and spending time outdoors was one of our few safe forms of recreation. But that whole month, my text messages were full of alerts notifying me that the air quality was yellow, then orange, then red, then purple, a second set of color-coded danger levels to track in addition to coronavirus positivity rates.
When it comes to death tolls from both wildfires and Covid-19, San Francisco has been extraordinarily lucky. Actual wildfires within city limits tend to be minimal, and the region’s per capita rate of coronavirus infection has been among the lowest of major American metropolitan areas. Last year the city felt like a refuge, with its abundant nature, temperate weather and the local government’s proactive approach to curtailing viral transmission. Then the sky turned orange. But even now that the virus is under modest control, we’re relatively powerless to contain a spark that ignites hundreds of miles away.
People are fleeing California, the headlines say, and the latest census figures have the state losing a seat in Congress, for the first time. But where would we go? North to Oregon, where wildfires were about as bad last year? To Texas? To Miami, at risk of slipping into the sea from the same climate change we’re facing? No. We can hope for meaningful policy change, try to drive less, cut back on our meat consumption and pray the clouds offshore bring rain.
And, maybe, invest in goats.
Joanna Pearlstein (@jopearl) is a staff editor in Opinion.