After two weeks, I can finally see some blue sky.
“Just enough to make a Dutch Man’s pants with”, as my grandfather would say.
Since mid-August forest fires have been raging in Washington State, Idaho and Montana. Even Wyoming, to the south of Montana, has seen some forests burning. We have been literally surrounded by fire and smoke. A dull white curtain descended on Missoula lending it an apocalyptic air and stayed for two solid weeks. After cycling E to and from school, I would come home and scrape little black bits from my eyes. If I spoke too long with a parent at the school gates, my throat would burn. The other morning I overheard a nine-year-old boy at E’s school announce “My lungs hurt” as he slumped on the swing, too lethargic to pump his legs. Every now and then the sun tries to shine through this thick blanket of ash and smoke, but it only makes it look worse, like something from a film about the end of human civilisation.
During these weeks of life under the white curtain I felt utterly unmoored.
Just as I was getting to know each and every fold and contour of Mount Sentinel, the squat mountain whose base is practically in my front yard, it was removed from view by a grey fog. Walking into town became a journey into a place I didn’t recognise, and yet I had just decided to stay another year. Where was I and what had I just decided to embrace?
I stayed indoors for these two weeks. Every now and then I would stand on the street with J as he lit a cigarette. Seeing him light a small fire and inhale its smoke when we were already inhaling the smoke from hundreds of fires felt like an affront. “How could you?” I wanted to shout. But I didn’t. Candles at dinner crossed my mind one evening as a way to alleviate the unseasonal darkness, but the thought was banished as soon as it surfaced. Lighting even the tiniest fire seemed an insult to the people fighting the ones raging around us.
When a torrent of rain arrived, I thought relief would come. But how wrong I was. Lightning from the rain storm only ignited more fires. And high winds acted like giant bellows fanning the flames. These wildfires in the Northwest are the worst in history. And yet, we carry on living life as normally as possible. Kids go to school and soccer practice carries on—although down from 90 minutes to 60 and with very little running. When Missoula’s air quality went from Unhealthy to Hazardous, people were forced to ‘recreate’ at the mall instead of on the trails. I have seen a few joggers, mainly wearing masks, but still doing the unthinkable by inviting more of this yellow soup into their lungs.
People go about their daily business, doing the groceries, driving their cars with the air con blasting and the windows closing out the bad stuff. And the connections between the burning land and the burning of fossil fuels are made but not acted upon. How can they be? We are too far gone to do anything about the forest fires, whose vehemence is spurred on by climate change and the very cars we rely on to go about our daily business. These fires are a reminder of our smallness, our insignificance in the force of nature, especially when that nature has been aggravated to the point of fighting back. I have been deeply moved by the planet’s attempt to make us see what we are doing wrong. But as humans, we aren’t reading the signs, we are ignoring them, grateful for last night’s rain that dampened the fires at last and have allowed the blue to shine through. Fires are still burning, droughts in Washington and California are still sucking the soil dry. Some parts of the West are being evacuated, but here in Missoula, we are joyful at having clean air to breathe once more. Most of us have no doubt been marked by these couple of weeks, but how this collective experience has manifested itself has yet to be seen. I can open the windows now and stand outside and take a deep breath. This is a luxury, and one I will never take for granted again.