Columns

West Coast Osages: We’re All Connected

After Covid-19, heavy smoke blanketing the West Coast from mega-forest fires was only one more thing in an unusual year.

My husband and I depend on hiking and walking to make up for other enjoyable elements of our lives curtailed by the virus. They’ve been stress relievers bringing us joy, moments when we stepped out of the latest constraints. But as thick smoke from mega-fires turned the air hazardous, we entertained new dystopian scenarios.

In the week beginning Sept. 7, nearly 627,000 acres burned across Washington State, equaling the second worst fire season since 2015, according to Jay Inslee, the state’s governor. Near us, the Big Hollow Fire burned in steep, rugged terrain near Woodland, blowing smoke into neighboring Cowlitz County.

For us, very smoky air arrived on Sept. 9th and turned the late afternoon sun red. We’re familiar with smoke from fires in the Columbia River Scenic Gorge east of Portland creating dramatic sunsets, sending ash drifting on our driveway and our cars, but in the coming days the yellowish cast of the sky deepened. The winds began to flow from the west bringing the smoke plume from California and Oregon up the Columbia River. Smoke hung across the pasture. The air tasted of grit and breathing outside tightened your chest.

Air Quality Index or AQI entered quickly into our vernacular. My cousin Don in Aberdeen along the coast of Washington monitored the air as he looked forward to resuming his walks outside.

An Osage from Oregon called during an errand in the beach community of Newport, where she was watching a stream of fire trucks with sirens traveling north toward Lincoln City, a town further up the Oregon coast under Level 2 evacuation orders. Southeastern suburbs of Portland were being considered for evacuation. Over the week, businesses and homes burned in towns across Oregon and California.

Friends, whose house in the Gorge had been squarely in the path of a fire earlier this year, drove south to Burns in central Oregon to escape hazardous smoke. Friends on the Warms Springs Reservation in Oregon struggled to purify the air inside their home, while relatives in Seattle hunkered inside until they worried the air was being depleted of oxygen there, too.  For a time, it felt like the entire West was burning.

By Monday, Sept. 14th, our air quality had improved from “Hazardous” to “Very Unhealthy,” but Portland and neighboring towns were still hazardous with severe weather shelters operating. The barest sprinkle of rain reached us promising (but not delivering) relief. A white haze hung over the island through the week but gradually improved. We are back to normal, but not over being grateful for time outside.

This evening sandhill cranes are stretched across the pastures behind our property. This is the first year they’ve stopped by on their journey south, it’s one of the good things this year has brought.

Neither the threats nor the fires are over. As I prepare this column, we learn that fires are forcing more than 68,000 people from their homes in Sonoma and Napa counties, which includes Santa Rosa where an aunt lived for many years. Our thoughts are with Osages on the West Coast as well as the communities that have lost family and friends.