In lightning-struck California, the smoke is now scarier than the pandemic

21 August 2020

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USA – Oakland, California – A wildfire pollution sky is the color of dirty porcelain and it glares, so your eyes hurt even before you look up. It’s the smell that really gets you, though. That and the sour scrape in your throat. From my house in Oakland we can’t quite see the nearest fires—we scan the horizon for them, obsessively, but so far this week we see fire only in the photos and videos coming at us nonstop. Fat black plumes. Burning fields. House walls, county roads, children’s play structures, all engulfed in flames.

The smell? Reminiscent of all the cigarettes ever smoked since the beginning of time, smoldering together semi-invisibly. “Semi” because even for those of us not imminently threatened by wildfire, there’s the flying ash; we’ve been watching it flutter around us, collecting on porches and on our arms. In the mornings when I step outside to take in the newspapers, I squint and hold my breath. The headlines and front-page stories contain phrases that read like catastrophic haiku.

CalFire, the state agency that handles forest and wildland fires, says its firefighters are working on about two dozen fronts at once around the state—in August, a month before our big fire season usually gets underway at summer’s end. Most of these were started not by people or faulty power lines but by the “historic lightning siege”—a sequence of electrical storms last weekend, wildly atypical for this time of year, that struck during a brutal windy hot spell and didn’t drop much quenching rain. The fires are burning heat-dried inaccessible terrain as well as roaring into inhabited areas like Vacaville and Napa Valley. Scores of thousands of residents have been evacuated, or are being urgently ordered to get to safer ground.

All this, of course, amid the pandemic. When my husband wordlessly handed his phone to me Thursday morning, he had been staring at a photo taken by an Associated Press photographer, Noah Berger, an hour north of here. In the picture a wood outdoor sign reads, resolutely: SENIOR CENTER. WEAR A MASK. WASH YOUR HANDS. SOCIAL DISTANCE. STAY SAFE. The only thing visible behind it is a massive sheet of flame and smoke.

That photo hit social media immediately; by the time we saw it, some wiseacre had typed “EVERYTHING IS FINE” across the top. A certain cope-however-you-can bewildered despair has tinged many of the health advisories we are hearing this week. I assume the feeling is similar in places where COVID-19 is overlapping tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. In our wildfires version of the double whammy, we’re urged to remain indoors unless we must evacuate, in which case, whether a hotel or a group shelter, good luck with that. The shelters are trying to promote social distancing, a daunting challenge with hundreds of evacuees. Hotels, for those who can afford a room, are filling quickly. In the beach city of Santa Cruz, already wrestling with the economy-versus-pandemic challenges of too many tourists, a countywide alert has asked all tourists to leave the area, and hotels are turning away vacationers with reservations in order to open rooms for fire evacuees.

So: Go home—where anyway you already spent most of the spring if your circumstances allowed you to follow pandemic lockdown orders—and close your windows. Here in the Bay Area’s normally Mediterranean climate zones, like Oakland, most of us don’t own air conditioners. Windows-closed heat during a brutal hot spell presents health hazards of its own.

“You put a baby in a heat wave without a way to cool down—that places the infant at high risk of mortality,” a pediatrician named Lisa Patel told me yesterday. “And for the older adults, our especially vulnerable communities—Black, Latinx, and Indigenous, in particular—I’m very worried.”

Patel, who teaches pediatrics at Stanford University, had just finished a 24-hour hospital shift, part of it in a neonatal intensive care unit she said reeked of smoke. She happens to own a portable air purifier for her home, as do I; some of us managed to procure them during the California wildfire disasters of 2017 and 2018.

Mine is on the floor beside me as I type, quietly trying to do its job; my husband waits to get a turn so he doesn’t start hacking during his morning Zoom meetings. We work in adjoining pandemic home offices, by which I mean our adult kids’ former bedrooms; on Thursday the purifier was hauled back and forth all day, directed by our respective levels of distress. We used to think of these machines as accessories for the highly allergic. Now, as climate change helps expand our regional fire seasons into predictable world-class disasters, they are one more marker of separation between people with and without the means to try to protect themselves.

It’s well documented by now that poorer people are often harder hit by pollution-aggravated respiratory illness; their neighborhoods, not the more affluent areas, tend to abut industrial polluters. And the effect of wildfire smoke atop chronic respiratory illness, Patel said, is devastating for a pediatrician to witness. “A child with severe respiratory distress looks like a child suffocating in front of your eyes,” she said. “What really breaks my heart is that it hits communities of color the hardest. It’s happening every year now with the wildfires—we see more kids come in with asthma exacerbations. Usually it’s kids from communities of color.”

The most dangerous of the airborne toxins released by wildfire is PM2.5: fine particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter. “They penetrate quite deeply into the lungs, where they cause irritation and an inflammatory response,” says environmental health scientist Sarah Henderson, who works with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. The body’s agitated internal reaction is perilous under any circumstances, especially for the already health-compromised. And “if your immune system is a bit distracted,” Henderson says, “it may not be able to pay as much attention to the novel coronavirus. That’s one way in which smoke may make people more susceptible.”

We have much more to learn about exactly what happens when COVID-19 meets PM2.5 inhalation. None of it, we’re fairly confident, will prove to be good news. We know that much of California’s wildfire corps is drawn from state prison populations, which have been hit hard by COVID-19. We know firefighters can’t socially isolate very effectively. We know each of these increasingly vicious wildfire seasons brings many different forms of health trauma, including PTSD and the multiple calamities that ensue when fire takes out homes and whole neighborhoods.

“The mental health issues are epidemic,” Lisa Patel said. “Some kids will so much as see black smoke in the sky, and they start crying because they’re remembering the last time they had to evacuate.”

We know too that our state economy—like the rest of the world’s—depends on people, many underpaid for the “essential” work they’re performing, who are not able to shut themselves indoors. In California the pandemic has been reminding us of that since we received our first lockdown orders in March. Which brings me, finally and somewhat desperately, to the matter of masks. I think I can speak for most northern Californians, defiant contrarians excepted, when I say: We have our masks! We’re wearing our masks! The self-indulgent among us now own masks in multiple colors, to go with our shirt or our mood. I hang mine on a rack by the kitchen door, so I’ll remember, and have stuffed a couple into pockets and backpacks, just in case.

But they’re the wrong kind. Our pandemic masks, to repeat admonitions everybody’s heard nonstop for months, are designed to keep our own possibly infected vapors from reaching others. To protect ourselves from PM2.5s we need N95 masks, the kind that keep outside particles from coming in, the kind we were told to avoid buying because medical workers need them more.

They do; no argument there. But now what? N95s are in short supply these days, especially this week in Northern California. Patel has been exploring increased access to the masks, and so far the picture is disheartening. “I’ve started to stare into the cave of the supply chain for N95s,” she said. “I will tell you, it is a dark and deep cave. Exports. Trade restrictions. In times of high peak demand, it can be hard to come up with enough.”

OK, noted. I just ran a web search for DIY N95 face masks. The less dubious-looking of the entries display some ambivalence, like don’t put too much faith in these, but I’m skimming their details: more than one filter, should be durable, has to make a seal on your face but also be comfortable so you will actually wear it outside. Oh, and no vent, right? Those little vents on some of the N95s make them useless for protecting others from coronavirus.

“The workaround I’ve heard is that you can wear it, but wear a second mask over it,” Patel told me. We were quiet for a minute, considering improvisation in the face of disaster; the heat was scheduled to start rising again, and I’d be positioning myself in front of the floor fan and praying the electricity stays on. COVID-19 anxiety had receded just a bit, momentarily, in the face of something even more immediate and huge. I couldn’t figure out whether that felt like a weird form of relief. “Don’t go outside,” Patel said. “Stock up on ice.”

Sarah Gibbens contributed to the reporting of this story.

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