The Smoke from Salem
This year has been plagued with misfortunes and disasters. But when the skies over Salem, Oregon turned shades of crimson, ash fell as summer snow, and the lingering smell of campfire seeped in through the windows. A new type of fear came. Carried with the smoke to paint an apprehension across the sky, our senses were entrapped in a two-week long inescapable reality that shocked, silenced, and echoed a foreboding buzz of uncertainty over the forests and the wider state.
Like the forest once the fire’s passed, I was shocked. The skies an ominous orange shadowed by the smokiness of known but unseen ruin—an endless lens filtering the world to a post-apocalyptic cinema scene. The penetrating smell of campfire followed me anytime I left the shelter of my home. Even as I sat close to the window, I breathed the fragrance of my forests flaming. When I took the pups outside, I saw the ash coating the porch table, the grill, my car—a blanket of remains. One smoke-scented venture to the store turned somber after turning on the air conditioner of my car only to be accosted with a fresh spraying of ash, reminding me of the fire’s infiltration.
The community was shocked, but we kicked into high-gear to temporarily rehome the half a million Oregonians forced to evacuate along with their pets and livestock. Although my family and community were safe from evacuation, I struggled to comprehend the vastness of the threat.
While firefighters worked to tame the wind-fueled flames, United Way, Red Cross, the Oregon Food Bank Network, and others mobilized and collected hundreds of volunteers and collecting donations from families and businesses. While these organizations were on the ground, Facebook was employed effectively to disseminate information surrounding the fires: evacuation notices, smoke toxicity, and the fleeing wildlife entering civilization and threatening pets. Farmers free from the threat of fire used the platform to offer their assistance with livestock and animal relocation, while others offered their land. The brigade of action mobilized to alleviate the immediate displacement, and in the coming weeks, construction companies and law firms offered their services to rebuild homes and fight insurance companies, all at supplemented costs to aid in the effort for normalcy.
After years of political polarization, I saw the resilience of my community in the face of a real threat. As ash collected atop the cars, benches, and footpaths, so too did the comfort of cooperation canvas the community.
Like the birds at first ash fall, our community fell silent. Scared of the near future and frozen in uncertainty, our fears stayed closeted in apprehension. Awaiting evacuation orders and following the rain forecasted a week away with hawkish anticipation, our eyes shared gazes at the spot where the sun should have been, our mouths gave half-smiles of reassurance, but the silence of fear lingered loudly.
My national and global community remained silent. Only when the threat of evacuation seemed less eminent and the sky turned from yellow-orange to smoky gray did my friends and colleagues from the East Coast reach out in concern, their ignorance to my situation paralleling the national media coverage. Suffering only with other sufferers, seeking comfort only from other captives, provided little solace.
The forests stayed silent too. Hundreds of thousands of acres of ecosystem activity still—at the fires’ request. What once was a habitat for beings, carbon sequesters and sinks, oxygen producers, provider of vital ecosystem services for the local and global community—will stay silent long past the dissipation of ash. Nearly 900,000 acres burned in Oregon, nearly 5 million acres across the West Coast devastated. I have yet to return to my favorite state park, Silver Falls, and absorb the extent of the damage the fires inflicted there.
The 35 dead across the West Coast will stay silent too.
What of the noise of the smoke toxicity to Oregon residents? Will silence stay for the 16,000 people experiencing homelessness in Oregon as of January 2019—the numbers of course don’t reflect those who have been evicted from covid, or who were sheltered at the State Fairgrounds and other semi-open constructions after evacuation. Perhaps, the fires have not yet claimed silence on the totality of it’s victims.
The media has stayed silent to climate change’s causality, all while sending loudspeakers towards rumors of political arson and poor fire management policies, focusing on the partisanship of a natural disaster, fueling divisions as dry weather fueled the fire. According to a media watchdog analysis conducted by Media Matters, only 15% of segments on American news channels acknowledged the connection between the unprecedented mega-fires and the climate crisis. Another analysis over the entire month of August found only 4% of broadcast news discussed the catastrophic atmospheric cause and effect.
Instead, the media focused on the fissures between charred lines—spreading and denying rumors of political activism through arson. While six men have been charged in the starting of Oregon fires, rumors abounded as their drug addicted- and mental illness-fueled actions were blamed to be planned acts of terrorism by Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite the official rejection of such claims by the Oregon State Police, media reports spurred Facebook comments spurred distrust and detest.
Although I do not personally know someone whose life has been lost or whose home has been ravaged (although I know people who evacuated and feared for such a case), the loss of security lingers strong. The silence of intangible loss rings loud.
Like the smoke in our lungs, the sensation of uncertainty and fear penetrated the entire West Coast. It came to our eyes, up our noses, past our lungs, and into our hearts where the first assemblage of a climate-fated future coalesced.
As a fire-induced microclimate breeds new fire, the positive feedback loop of an incidental spark left millions in distress. Our future will see more fires as the already-degraded ground reduces water retention and the fewer carbon sequesters standing will accelerate carbon dioxide’s compulsion for global and regional warmth. The temperatures will continue to rise, the grass will stand drier, and sparks will only prosper more.
Disruption to some extent is beneficial for ecosystem functioning. Routine forest fires contribute to greater resiliency by facilitating nutrient cycling, clearing more habitat space for burgeoning seedlings, killing disease, and reducing competition, particularly by eliminating Darwin’s evolutionary unfit. But with mega-fires occurring with ever more frequency, I fear disruption will outpace ecosystem revival until there’s nothing left to disrupt and nothing left to revive.
How many homes will be rebuilt to succumb to the fated fires of next year? How many years will the community mobilize before the seasonal disasters demotivate and demoralize? The periodic barrage of fires can only widen the fissure between Have’s and Have not’s, leaving clear lines of the fire’s path. Perhaps the fires will grow bigger to threaten even Portland and the “urban elite.” Perhaps the fire’s charge will prove nondiscriminatory as we begin to understand the effects of chronic smoke toxicity as lung cancer and asthma cases rise with the acceptance of today’s tomorrow.
Perhaps, fire season will join with sweater season to provide routine for my future children and the future of my community. California’s fire season has already extended to the entirety of the year; maybe, Oregon’s will as well.
The silence of our leaders and mainstream media will gaslight our experiences and convince us the normality of security-shattering fires. As the youth will rise to power, I can only hope their leadership will listen to the silence, to the uncertainty, to the shock.
The smoke has cleared from the sky in Salem for now. I wonder when it will return next and whether we will have made the move towards a greener and more equitable society, or if the apocalyptic orange painting in the sky was just a foreshadow for darker days ahead.
Hailing from Salem, Oregon, Micaela Edelson is a passionate writer of poetry and prose that aim to shed light on humanity’s prioritization of profit over people and our constructed relationship with the natural world. Her work has been published in Red Flag international magazine, Humana Obscura literary magazine, The Write Launch, Route 7 Review literary journal, The Showbear Family Circus, and Wild Roof Journal. Website: www.micaelaedelson.com