We were outside Madras, Oregon today, driving home after visiting our daughters in Bend, when the problem started. I’ve only experienced this one other time, about a year ago while leaving my daughter’s home in Wenatchee, Washington.
My throat tightens up and I begin to have a difficult time swallowing. The first time it happened, I was driving by myself. This time Tim was driving, and we were a bit more prepared. The air vents in the car were closed.
The first time it happened, I turned the car around and drove back to my daughter’s. Fortunately, I wasn’t but a couple of miles down the road. She got me into a shower and got me some meds to help open my airways.
This time, Tim and I were driving directly into the smoke that was creating the problem. This time the entire state is seemingly under fire.
When we left our home on Friday, making good on our promise to take the family’s heirloom piano to our oldest daughter, I was more worried about pulling the piano in the trailer over the winding roads through Central Oregon than I was the fires.
When we reached the ghost town of Shaniko on Friday, we could see the plume of smoke coming from the Kahneeta/Warm Spring fires to the west of us. But it was centralized to that locale.
By today over 36,000 acres had burned and strong winds had blown the smoke south, towards Madras, towards Bend. Smith Rock, typically majestically visible, was totally obscured by smoke dense as winter fog. It was that way all across Oregon, into Washington. My sister called from Seattle to say the smoke was as bad as she’s ever seen it.
Tim stopped and bought some face masks, some lemon drops for my throat, some water. He grabbed the jar of Vick’s vapor rub that he just happened to have in his bag. We talked about whether he would YouTube how to perform a trachetomy if necessary, or if he would just let me suffocate to death. We were joking, of course, but there was a nervousness to it. Especially as we continued the trip and realized the smoke was not clearing out.
My girlfriend called to tell me that there was a new fire up Hurricane Creek in Wallowa County where her son lives. Someone had left a campfire burning. Someone who wasn’t even supposed to have a campfire due to fire hazard.
Two weeks ago, Shelby and Tim were hiking the Wallowas. Today people were being kept out of their homes because of the fires. In 24 hours, that illegal campfire burned over 200 acres. Police were turning everyone but the homeowners away and only then to get important items, my girlfriend reported.
I’ve lived in Oregon longer than I ever thought I would. I have seen some bad fires. I have a son-in-law and daughter who have worked the fire crews. But I’ve never seen fires like these.
The sky and the horizon have melted together into one big blanket of smoke.
We arrived home, safely. Thank you. But, if you are watching the news, you know that many people can’t return home. They have no home left to return to. We are not in that sort of danger. Not at all.
But our hearts are heavy for our neighbors who have lost their homes and their livelihoods. And we think everyday of our firefighters and how exhausted they must be. We think of their families and how worried they must be all the time their loved ones are away. And we pray for those firefighters in Washington who lost their lives fighting to protect others.
We need rain.
But we need a good downpouring of rain all across the West.
Thank you to all who have reached out and have inquired. Our families are safe and in no danger.
I wish that could be said of all our neighbors in the Pacific Northwest.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press).