Home / Science / Now it is no longer safe even at home. Fires bring ash air into the house.

Now it is no longer safe even at home. Fires bring ash air into the house.



SAN FRANCISCO – The novelty we do here when we get up in the morning, even before we brush our teeth and make coffee, is looking at the sky. Then we look on the Internet to see if our eyes are deceiving.

“Purple again,” I told my wife this morning. Not the sky. That was the color of soot, as if a child had taken dirty fingers and rubbed them on the horizon. Purple is the color in the air quality chart. It means we hit “very unhealthy,” our air filled with microscopic particles which, speaking of babies, are dangerous for them to breathe into their soft pink lungs. And not so great for those of us who already have a few miles in our lungs.

During the coronavirus pandemic, our last refuge was to stay indoors, but when things get this persistently violent, trouble creeps inside. Thanks to rampant fires, our home air filter has begun to tell us that things have become unhealthy in our home – bad air is managing to sneak in, even through closed windows and doors.

So we started switching our air purifier from room to room so our two kids can do SOTG (school on the go) without getting SOOT (soot in the bloodstream). We clean each room, then rotate the device, and I drag myself to maintain the hateful optimism that is my hallmark and my fatherly duty. But you can tell that things are bad when you start looking for comparisons, like: Well, we could be in Flanders in 1918 (maybe that pink tint of my glasses is actually ash).

In fact, I don’t have to go back to Belgium during the First World War to know that things could be worse. We could be in the Portland suburbs or many other places in the Pacific Northwest around this time. There, the ashes in the sky come with rampant fires that are creating real refugees – people fleeing death with everything they can carry.

So yes, we are privileged: roof over head, freezer full of meat and crispy with vegetables. My wife and I continue to work and no one we are close to has died from that terrible virus.

That said, I’ve had a migraine three days straight from poor air (or self-pity, or both). My wife is a neurologist who specializes in migraine treatment and says it should help when you sit in the dark. But I can tell you that Wednesday morning – when we woke up and looked up at the sky and it was the black-orange of Halloween – the darkness of the whole day did little to calm the headache.

I’m a science reporter and it’s hard not to see what’s happening now as a science story, with Covid-19 taking advantage of population density and other modern factors to jump and jump around the world and from coughing to nose and lungs to lungs and so that fires can take advantage of our human spread in the urban / wild nexus and transform our manifest destiny into a lot of hay. Mother Nature puts it in order, one might say, that it is a very clinical and obnoxious way of looking at things, to the point of being fatalistic.

What my family wants is not a “context” but to go out and play. Or even inside and play.

“Dad, can I get out of my room after school?” my son Milo, 12, asked me this afternoon when he put his head in my home office. He had been ordered to stay in his bedroom, with SOTG and his shift with the air purifier.

“I’ll check the air,” I told him.

I looked out, and it was yellow-gray like a smoker’s teeth. I looked on the internet and it was still purple, worse this morning, the air quality index now reads 228, a higher level of “very unhealthy”.

This weekend should have been a relief, starting over with some socially distant sports, including baseball and tennis for my son, tennis for me, maybe a family bike ride. Unlikely now. I just hope to look in the sky and on the internet and see only red (just plain unhealthy) or even yellow. It would be moderate.


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