Early last week, my smoke alarms began going off a few times a day. I began to move around my basement apartment in Portland, Oregon, with a scowl, noise-canceling headphones swinging around my neck. On the one hand, because there were no fires nearby, the alarms were not doing their job. The system was too sensitive, the boy was crying wolf. On the other hand, the alarms were working just fine: there was smoke. It was everywhere.
The color of the midday sky as it streamed across the bathroom floor was tangerine, and the air quality outside my window ranked worse than any other city in the world. Meanwhile, the wildfires that had already burned a million acres in Oregon and devoured hundreds of homes were now moving in an ugly rash toward my home town.
The first time the alarms went off, it came as a surprise. Smoke? I guess! There was barely a blur of gray against the blue. I closed my windows, put on a podcast, went for a walk. A day later the alarms started again. By that point it was clear that things were bad. The sky was the color of a new bruise. A few friends south of me had already been evacuated, and there were suddenly so many fires around the state it was hard to know what to track, where to grieve. It felt like the early days of Covid-19: brain sputtering, unsure how to root in the new reality.
So we’d silence the alarms, and a few minutes later they’d be back, screeching. I hated the noise, and yet, because I felt powerless against the fires and the climate denial that had seeded them, their bleating began to feel like an extension of my nervous self. Things are not OK, said the alarms. Are you listening? Are you listening? Are you listening?
Eventually, casing the house, I found one skylight still cracked. Once closed, the alarms stopped. I told the family who lived above me that I thought we should disable the whole system. The alarms were hardwired. It was time to pull the plugs. The mother, clutching her toddler, looked at me with a tilt of her head. “But this is the time we most need them to work.” It was almost funny, the degree to which I wanted to ignore that truth. All I wanted to do was to eat the last good watermelon of summer and sit in a park, six feet from a friend.
How lucky it suddenly seemed, that thing called coronavirus, that even when breath could be toxic we could still share one another’s company – outside, masked, from a distance. Now the outside had turned toxic too. We couldn’t see people indoors, because our bodies could be sick, and now we couldn’t see people outdoors, because the air was sick too. It was like a puzzle. So where do you see the people? The answer was no. Zero. You don’t! I was stuck in my basement apartment, rolling my eyes at the man who jogged by in an N95 mask. Give it up! I wanted to yell. The old ways are dead!
One of the strange things about living through overlapping national crises is that you feel nostalgia for the time when there was one less crisis, when people could jog with only a folded bandanna around their mouth. At my neighborhood grocery store, the vendor who stood outside selling the local alt-weekly street newspaper was gone. So was the employee who, ever since March, had stood outside and monitored the number of people entering. A few of us arrived at a similar time, and we all stood there at a distance, like a row of well-trained dogs, until, with nobody waving us in, the first guy just shrugged and walked in, and eventually I followed. It was like reaching an intersection when the streetlights were out, if the concept of the whole intersection had only been invented a few months earlier.
A week before the fires started here, I spoke to a friend in Oakland. She told me the smoke was so bad she could not open her windows. That’s awful! I said. I’m so sorry. I meant it, but beneath it, I thought: Oy, I am glad I do not live there. This is a friend who sends me boxes of lemons from her tree, a tree adjacent to a hammock that she can sit in much of the year. The contract of Portland is that we do not get nice things like that. We live many months of mud and rain and then, in return, our world does not burn. I grew up here, and I know this contract the way I know the tangy damp of wet soil. It feels naive to admit now: that though our seasons have been changing gradually for years, this week has felt like a revelation. The contract is broken. The things I have so long feared about the future are, day by day, slipping into my past-tense.
During an environmental writing course in college, I was asked to turn in a story about climate change. It was 2012. I wrote about a group of kids, drunk in a dorm, arguing about Jill Stein and rolling a joint to go smoke outside as the distant hills burned, ash falling to their feet. “The science around wildfires and global warming is still tenuous,” someone in the class told me. “Maybe make your response to the prompt more obvious?”
Though now amplified by a decade of drought and climate-changed weather systems that brought unexpected Santa-Ana-like winds to the Pacific north-west, wildfires in Oregon are not inherently a problem. Natural fires are an essential part of an ecosystem, revitalizing the soil and purging debris and dead trees to rejuvenate the habitat and make way for young, healthy vegetation. Our leaders need to look to indigenous communities who have been practicing controlled burns for years. The cost, we are now seeing, will be tremendous if we do not.
My home is a few blocks away from the 2,400-acre Forest Park, a shaggy, green canyon-rutted haven that is one of the largest urban forests in America. Under our mayor’s new state of emergency, this park, like all city-owned outdoor spaces, is closed until 24 September. There have already been a few minor fires in its vicinity, and though all are now extinguished, the possibility of a new spark dances nightly through my pre-sleep brain. To keep myself calm, I keep my hands busy. After connecting with a group of local climate justice organizers, I go to the restaurant-supply store and spend hundreds of dollars raised from friends and family to buy fresh fruit, batteries, first aid and non-perishables for local evacuees and farmworkers, the latter of whom are still expected to work in the fields. My head throbs after only an hour outside my apartment.
A few years ago, my grandmother packed photo albums and quilts as a wildfire forced her out of their home in Montana. Hearing that, I mentally created my own checklist: old notebooks, my favorite boots, my laptop. But last week, faced with packing a real go-bag, I surveyed my apartment and felt very little. Nothing in it seems important. The thing I want to hold on to most – the contract of what it means to live in soggy Portland – is already lost. My grief is not unique. In the scheme of it, I am still very lucky. All over the world, in subsumed Kiribati, in drought-stricken Sudan, in the recently hurricane-struck Gulf coast, people are forced to leave their homes and confront what can feel like a betrayal from the Earth, but what is really a betrayal by those with institutional power. “You are failing us,” Greta Thunberg told world leaders last September. “But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”
Finally, at the end of last week, we unplugged the smoke alarms. If one goes off, it rings alone, via battery. Because I have not heard of anyone else’s alarms being this sensitive to smoke, a part of me wonders if my house’s problem may not be related to the outside world at all. Maybe the window-closing was just a coincidental fix. Still, a larger part of me wants to trust that the alarms knew what they were doing. That they sensed the air and knew that it was bad. To hear an alarm ring is to want only to make it stop. Surely it is time for us to listen.
Erica Berry is a freelance writer from Portland