By Jessica Dabler Martin
When I first moved to the Portland, Oregon area in 2004, I believed it “rained all the time.” Perhaps the best kept secret of the Pacific Northwest is that it only rains about eight months of the year with four months of the most perfect summer weather – dry, sunny, clear blue skies, not too hot – perfect for outdoor adventures. It made eight months of rain worth it! Air conditioning in homes was a luxury item rarely needed fifteen years ago, and in fact, most homes did not have it. Fast forward fifteen years, and I would argue air conditioning is becoming a summertime necessity due to heat and occasional smoke. Oregon summers are consistently hotter and dryer than historical averages. One scientific study after another confirms human-induced climate change. With climate change, the American west is predicted to burn longer, hotter, and bigger than before. While this year’s specific events are not definitively shown to be due to climate change, the trends in recent years fit the predictive models scientists have been warning about for years. It only takes abundant dry fuel and a spark, whatever the cause, to create an inferno.
The scale of these fires and resulting smoke feels inescapable. One friend commented about hopping in the car and “driving until finding blue sky.” On September 15, that would have involved driving over 500 miles.
Up until this year, the worst air quality I can recall in the Portland metro (confirmed here) was rated “unhealthy.” For six days now, Portland’s air quality has ranged from very unhealthy to hazardous with the amount and spread of smoke reflecting the scale of these fires. Certain communities in Oregon were ranked worst in the world for air quality – not a metric any place should aspire to. Whole town have burned to the ground, some people have died, and thousands have been evacuated (Oregon-specific summary). Fortunately, the weather improved to slow the spread of the fires, giving fire fighters a chance at containment. Even now, the southeast corner of the Portland metro remains under threat should weather conditions change for the worse. We briefly hosted good family friends, who faced evacuation orders. I am happy to report that they are home, safe, albeit still very smoky. Small towns just downwind of the fires may be a few orders of magnitude worse in air quality than what is reported for Portland. Even if these towns are currently safe from fire, the smoke is toxic and unbearable.
So, what does it feel like? In short, trapped in our home with nowhere to go. Going outside is like being stuck in the moment when a small campfire douses you in smoke, but with no means to move to the opposite side to get away from it. Being “trapped” was true due to COVID-19 before the fires, but we at least had an outlet to get outside daily – an option we no longer have. Unfortunately, regular cloth masks to protect against COVID-19 do not block the fine particulate smoke. We sealed off our fireplace and have not used our dryer (yes – smoke is even getting in through the laundry vent). Some people I know have sealed windows and doors. There is still a faint smell of smoke inside the house, despite recently replacing a very dirty HVAC filter. I nearly cried when the forecasted rain earlier this week never came, and air quality is now predicted to remain unhealthy for two more days. I hope the rains come on Friday.
Personally, many healthy family and friends have experienced symptoms of wildfire smoke: scratchy throats, coughing, breathing issues, headaches, and general fatigue. It is worse for individuals with asthma or other cardiorespiratory conditions. Local reports indicate increased emergency, urgent care, or telecare health visits this past week. Unfortunately, smoke exposure symptoms overlap COVID-19 symptoms overlap COVID-19 symptoms. I have personally had the thought, “is it smoke or COVID-19?” There are concerns that breathing unhealthy air will make COVID-19 more likely or worse due to inflamed lungs. On top of this, the number of families uprooted and staying with other friends or family members makes spreading COVID-19 more likely. I worry. Our family broke the rules of the pandemic disaster to help family friends facing the wildfire disaster. We would not have done it differently, though.
From a food allergy perspective, this experience only confirms that as a family we need to better prepare for natural disasters. If it were our family that got a knock on the door telling us to “get out” with minutes to spare, we would be fumbling for shelf-stable food and epinephrine autoinjectors. We also need to make sure we routinely go through our emergency kit because what could be worse than needing to use the kit and discovering rancid sunflower seed butter two years past its expiration date. I’m planning to set up a six-month cycle in our family’s shared “To do” app, reminding us to go through our kit and replace certain food items if needed. Kids With Food Allergies recently updated an excellent post on disaster preparedness with great suggestions for making and maintaining a kit.
The smoke will clear, but the damage is done. My hope is that as a nation, we will listen to our domain-specific experts to guide our path forward. We must use unpolluted science to put the health and well-being of people first. The social and political challenges are enormous. I leave with a piece of hope. At a popular campsite where nearly everything was destroyed, the American flag still stands. It is not too late to change course.
Jessica Martin earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Oregon Health and Science University in 2011. She lives in the Portland, Oregon area with her husband Jason and their sons where she teaches undergraduate biology and anatomy and physiology at Portland Community College. Although not currently engaged in cutting-edge laboratory science, she continues to actively research current findings in allergy and immunology. She aspires to eventually return to the trenches of doing laboratory science in allergy and immunology.