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How I Battle Wildfire Anxiety
September 24, 2023

How I Battle Wildfire Anxiety

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve Become Obsessed With Tracking Wildfires. I Noticed a Scary Truth., I’ve assembled an army of apps, air filters, and alarms. They’re up against a formidable enemy., The wildfire safety apps I use to check air quality and prepare for disaster.

The first thing I do in the morning is check PurpleAir. It shows dozens of dark maroon dots around the southern Oregon valley where I live, and this is bad. During the night the air quality has chromatically shifted from an ‘unhealthy’ red to a ‘very unhealthy’ maroon. Begrudgingly, I pad pajama-clad to the windows, where I peel back the curtains and stare directly into the dull orange face of a sullen, smoke-soaked sun. Coffee seems so pointless.

Southern Oregon is renowned for balmy summers and mild, drizzly winters. Or at least, it was. Over the past decade, summers have become hotter, drier, and longer. Winter rains are less frequent. Reservoirs have dried up. Wildland fires, as a result, spring up in the surrounding mountains with alarming frequency. Wildfire smoke settles stubbornly into our valley, refusing to leave for weeks at a time.

For southern Oregonians—and Americans across the West—keeping tabs on wildfires has become a frequent if not daily exercise during fire season. The U.S. Forest Service notes that ‘fire season’ used to refer to the hottest and driest summer months, but that climate change has begun to turn fire season into a year-round concern.

These changes to our environment have caused changes to our regional psyche. We’ve become obsessed with data sets that warn us of dangers inherent to living in a fire-prone area. They are flimsy shields against one of nature’s most destructive forces, but we cling to them.

PurpleAir, for example, is a community-based air quality monitoring system. For $229 to $299, you can buy an air quality monitor and set it up in your yard. Register the device and connect it to the internet, and you become part of a nationwide network of wildfire-smoke nerds, measuring particulates and auto-posting results online. There are about 1,500 monitors in Oregon and more than 23,000 across the U.S.

But PurpleAir is just the beginning of my air quality ritual. With journalistic determination, I check for corroborating data on an index run by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The state-run index uses measuring devices that are supposedly more sensitive than PurpleAir, and their PM2.5 measurements are often lower. (PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in diameter and smaller. It’s nasty stuff, estimated to cause about 50,000 premature deaths in the U.S. every year.) This late-August morning, the Oregon air quality index, with a slightly different color-coding system than PurpleAir, has an ‘unhealthy’ scarlet dot over our locale. Looking for the silver lining around a cloud of PM2.5, I consider this an upgrade from PurpleAir’s ‘very unhealthy’ warning. And at least I’m not in Bend, with its dirty-brown ‘hazardous’ hue.

Still, I keep my house closed up with the HVAC fan on, constantly circulating indoor air through the filters. I buy the most efficient smoke-particulate-grabbing filters available, which I order online to avoid venturing outside.

Next stop is the Fire, Weather and Avalanche Center. Another digital map, this time with little red flame icons that indicate active wildfires and gray flame icons that show those recently extinguished. The size of the icon reflects the approximate size of the fire. Today, within 50 miles there are 27 active small fires, six active large fires, and 21 recently extinguished fires. Click an icon and up pops a window with detailed information about each fire: its size, percent containment, and the estimated potential for growth.

The wildfire maps are littered with names like Smith River, Flat, Golden, Kelly, Doe, Prescott, Happy Camp, Denman, and Kanaka. Agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management name fires after surrounding landmarks, such as towns and geological features. Locals are on a first-name basis with significant nearby fires, and they become familiar conversational touchstones. The Kelly’s closed down Highway 199. We were going to go camping up at the lake, but the Golden is only 10 percent contained.

After Fire, Weather and Avalanche, I double-check with the State of Oregon Fires and Hotspots dashboard, a website developed using data from Esri, a company specializing in mapping software. Esri employs geospatial mapping technology gathered from satellites to show wildfire locations, sizes, and containment in real time. The dashboard goes beyond Oregon—panning out shows the Western U.S. awash in red dots and flame icons.

Our smoke is probably from one of the active large fires. To verify, it’s over to the Hazard Mapping System Fire and Smoke Product map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The overall view of North America depicts a blob of ‘heavy’ smoke over nearly a quarter of Canada. Zooming confirms a narrow band emanating from a Northern California fire that extends an insidious finger of gloom over our valley. The Smith River Complex—a conglomerate of half a dozen fires—has been burning for weeks some 45 miles away over the California–Oregon border.

A peek at the National Weather Service confirms mild north-northeast breezes are pushing Smith Complex smoke directly at us. Winds above 15 miles per hour are concerning. Red-flag warnings issued by the NWS mean high temps, low humidity, and strong winds have combined to increase the risk of dangerous fires. In 2022, the National Weather Service issued seven red-flag warnings for the state of Oregon, several of them encompassing our region. When I hear red-flag winds hurtling through the trees, I pray, Please, not here. Not again.

Much of our data obsession is born from painful memories of the 2020 Almeda fire. Driven by 60 mph winds, the Almeda hopscotched its way down the valley floor, taking out entire communities with such fury and speed that fire protection agencies couldn’t get ahead of it. In just a few hours, the Almeda destroyed upwards of 2,300 buildings and thousands of trees. At the time, my son and daughter-in-law lived at the north end of the valley, directly in the path of the inferno. Did you hear about the fire that started this morning? I remember texting them. Less than two hours later, I found myself making frantic phone calls: Get the hell out! They did.

Now, smoke density, wildfire proximity, and wind speed are deeply ingrained in our community’s collective consciousness. We are hyperaware. We know the sound of a commercial jetliner landing at nearby Medford Airport from the drone of a water tanker on its way to an outbreak. We know the town streets that have been designated as ‘escape routes.’ We have our go-bags by the front door. We keep gas tanks full.

The town where I live sits at the edge of the vast Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, a wildland of thick forests, clear rivers, burly mountains, and hundreds of thousands of acres of drought-parched trees and brush. The My Lightning Tracker app shows terrain maps that display little red dots indicating recent lightning ground strikes. These are harbingers of wildfire outbreaks, and a passing rainstorm can involve hundreds. We watch the ground strikes carefully in real time. We refresh the maps. We keep our phones charged.

I recently added Watch Duty to my phone, an app that sounds an alarm if any new fires pop up within my county. It goes off even for small, half-acre grass fires, but when it does, the sound grabs my gut and squeezes. Please, not here. Not again.


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