I began writing this column in Idaho, surprised I was there. Smoke drove Karen and me from our home. The experience started in fascination, moved to fear, led to relaxation and returned to fear. It’s a metaphor for aging septuagenarians with medical conditions.
Smoke plumes rose from the hills, followed by fire lines glowing in the night as they crawled sideways across the foothills above homes on lower slopes. I reminded myself this is a natural cycle of life, the death of the flora adding nitrogen to the soil so vibrant life springs up in future years. But consuming my neighbors’ homes wouldn’t create pretty flowers, so I was thankful the foothills acted as a natural barrier.
We felt secure across the mighty Columbia, although sirens in our neighborhood startled us into searching eastern skies for smoke plumes. Mostly we watched in relieved fascination as fire spread across the way.
As fires spread, grainy, grey smoke under pressure from temperature inversions settled onto the foothills and Wenatchee night lights. Haze drifted onto our lawns. Smoke entered our nostrils. We stopped biking the Loop Trail. I replaced the furnace filter I’d installed two weeks earlier. It was grey. Otherwise life went on.
Forecasts predicted these fires and the smoke could last for a week or even until the first snowfall as temperatures stayed high and winds stayed low. I bought N95 smoke masks to wear when I walked my dog past an empty golf course and thought about leaving.
The Wenatchee World elevated my fears by asking, “Just how bad is it?” Judy Bardin, epidemiologist for the Washington Department of Health, answered that Wenatchee’s air was ten times worse than federal standards for clean air. The article got my attention.
Janice Nolen, assistant VP of the American Lung Association in Washington, DC said, “These are serious risks and people should take them seriously. They should stay indoors, and this is not the time to be exercising outdoors. If you can see pollution, you don’t need to be breathing it.” We were breathing it. No more dog walks.
Then Nolen explained specific risk levels. “We’re talking about levels that trigger a heart attack or a stroke.” Whoops, she’s talking to me. I’m at higher risk with my not-completely healed heart failure and atrial fibrillation.
The paper piled on more warnings for me. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, heart problems and cardiovascular disorder are also at greater risk. I have a pulmonary disorder related to my heart problems and cardiovascular disorder.
She wasn’t done. “In addition, anyone over 65…” I’m 71. That blow knocked us out of our home next afternoon to keep me from getting knocked out forever. This blow we could avoid in our retirement.
I sent the information to our daughters and son west of the mountains, all of whom invited us to stay with them. Our son tersely replied, “Get out of there.”
We didn’t accept their invitations. After visiting friends and relatives over the summer and catching up on volunteer commitments and business responsibilities, we took time for ourselves. We escaped to a get-away in Sand Point where we ate pears, peaches and nectarines from our valley under sunny skies on a lawn beside Lake Pend Oreille. My sore throat went away and our eyes were less irritated as our body started its cycles of restoration.
We returned Sunday night via Route 2 west of Waterville. At dusk we descended through shadowy canyon walls into a pit filled with hazardous smoke beneath a blood red sun. We’ll leave again if the smoke doesn’t lift, gratefully accepting our childrens’ open-ended invitations.
We know we live in an inevitable cycle of life and death. It’s a fascinating journey with reminders to be prepared because the cycle always gets personal.