Dispatches from the present
Anyone who’s spent time in the Western United States is now familiar with living in and alongside wildfire smoke. The smell permeates everything. When I was on a fire crew in Washington state, we slept outside in the smoke. We’d wake to find our sleeping bags sprinkled in white. Each morning brought a ritual of coughing, itching, dryness and persistent low-grade headaches. Last summer, shortly after I moved to haze-shrouded Sacramento, ash floated through the orange trees and settled on the decaying Victorians lining my street. The formerly niche experience of living in and with the smoke has become ordinary for the dwellers of Western cities. We’re all smoke-eaters now.
Many people I’ve encountered complain; they worry about lung disease. I guess it’s new to them, but not to me. When I was firefighting, I woke up in enough cold sweat spasms to know that something I was breathing wasn’t healthy. But the smoke is also what I’m accustomed to; I’ve been enveloped in it for my entire life. My first memory of wildfire smoke is the smell of my dad coming home from fire assignments. He’d return from a few days or a few weeks away in an ash-coated red pickup truck with a black garbage bag full of dirty clothes that filled the basement with the smell of woodsmoke. Firefighting and its associated sensations are two of the things that most connect me to my dad, who was also—perhaps obviously—the reason I became, for a time, a firefighter.
After my dad passed away a little over a year ago, I cleaned out his shop. Although he had not gone out on a fire dispatch for several years, his gear was still all neatly arranged, ready to go, boots oiled and fire-resistant Nomex pants and shirts folded into his red bag, the ubiquitous duffle bag issued to many wildland firefighters. He’d maintained my fire boots as well, had them resoled and kept them oiled. A drawer in the shop was stuffed with white calf-leather Forest Service gloves. Despite being clean and unused for years, everything still carried the smell of smoke.
In firefighting, you learn to share a lot, probably too much. Smoke, too, is one of the many things that we share. We all breathe the same air, but in firefighting we all breathe the same particulates, the same burned material. Beyond smoke you’re connected to your coworkers through sweat, blood, body odor, cigarettes, pinches of chew and snuff and simple proximity smashed together in the box of the crew buggy. When you’re on a fire crew your individuality is absorbed into the communal whole: fire crews function best when every member gives up part of their autonomy. During fire season, you eat, sleep, bathe, shit and work in concert with twenty other people for months and have little contact with the outside world. Your body changes states; it dissipates into something more expansive and diffuse.
I’ve spent the last nine years of my life in graduate school, first for a Ph.D. and now for an MFA. In graduate school, it’s easy to imagine that you’re self-sufficient, a lone intelligence deployed onto this or that methodological problem. Interactions with others are predominately adversarial: the endless duels of peer review, conflict with faculty, passive-aggressive questions at conferences. The professional structure of higher education makes it easy to lose sight of connectivity to the world via countless material vectors: language, germs, air. Academic labor—at least in the humanities—occurs in isolation. COVID exacerbated this, transforming professors and students into heads on a screen.
When the Western wildfires began to become truly catastrophic in the 2010s, I was living in Iowa. I saw the photos of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles enveloped in smoke. I read the frantic tweets and Facebook posts and local news stories about how to stay safe during the “new” phenomenon of smoke season. What’s the big deal? I thought. This is what small towns in northeastern Washington look like all summer. The distress over smoke season then and now strikes me as a little overdetermined. I understand the public-health issues, but I also can’t help but wonder if the smoke serves as some type of reminder that our cities weren’t always and won’t always be here; the wildfire smoke suffocating urban areas an unpleasant instance of the outside getting into where it ought not be, a reminder of industrialization’s fragile dominion.
Smoke, since it’s carried through the air we depend on for life, strikes at the heart of human porousness. As COVID has also shown, there are still things that we cannot buffer ourselves against. But unlike COVID, smoke cannot be avoided, cannot be vaccinated against. To get away from smoke, you would need to barricade yourself into an airtight room and commit to total isolation from the world.
So far this fire season, we’ve been lucky. There’s only a little smoke; the fires haven’t been as catastrophic as in the past years. It’s perverse, but a small part of me wishes that there were more. When I caught my first whiff of early spring wildfire smoke, I felt ecstatic, but also a little manic. After living abroad or in the Midwest for most of the past eight years, the smell of smoke catalyzed some dormant part of my psyche. I paced up and down the length of the galley kitchen in my studio apartment. I created an account on USAJobs.com and saved a handful of firefighting positions to my account. I filled out an application for a hotshot crew that I never submitted. It was like fantasy shopping, filling your cart with desired objects you’ll never purchase. I mostly enjoy working in higher education, but sometimes I want to be reminded of what lies beyond the cinderblock walls and fluorescent lights of my office—that there’s more out in the world than syllabi, Zoom meetings, curriculum committees and administrative deadlines.
A growing body of social science identifies a strong correlation between wildland firefighting and adverse mental-health outcomes, particularly feelings of loneliness and social disconnectedness during the off-season. These days it’s always the off-season for me; I haven’t worked in fire since 2018. But for six years I ordered my life around the rhythm of months of intense camaraderie followed by months of the “real” world. In lieu of returning to firefighting, I now have the smoke. I’m still breathing the same air.
Photo credit: Nick Pieper, Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington (CC / BY Flickr)