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Conflagration

Started: 2017-11-05 15:42:57

Submitted: 2017-11-05 19:32:48

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator experiences the North Bay wildfires second-hand

When I stepped onto the curb after returning from a weekend in Northwest Arkansas just after midnight on the morning of Monday 9th October, I was assaulted by the acrid, lung-filling stench of campfire. I learned from Twitter that this was the smoke from a series of wildfires in the North Bay being blown into San Francisco by the same strong winds that whipped the fires into a major conflagration. By the time my Lyft dropped me off at home the smoke had intensified, and had infiltrated my entry way around the inadequate weather stripping around my front door. The rest of the house was unaffected by the smoke.

The smoke persisted into the morning, when it became clear that the fires were burning out of control, wiping out entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and attacking the urban/wildland interface in the Napa Valley, and fire crews had their hands full just keeping people out of the path of the flames. I started paying attention to air quality, and skipped running for the week due to low air quality. Everything looked different under the smoke. The sunlight turned a sickly pale yellow, the sky turned a feeble white, and the sun glowed blood red as it rose and set. Every day the smoke smelled a little different, and every day the smoke reminded me of a different place and time in India. I couldn't specifically identify any of the smoke smells, but I presumed they were the result of different combinations of fuel (houses, cars, buildings) being burned, possibly at different temperatures, combined with different atmospheric and wind conditions.

Red sun rises over San Francisco Bay
Red sun rises over San Francisco Bay

Lacking the vocabulary to describe the chemical composition or origin of the smoke I was smelling, I began speaking figuratively on Twitter:

The sky in San Francisco is a pale sickly yellow and smells of burnt dreams.

At times during the week the haze was dense enough that I couldn't see across the bay; some days I could barely see Yerba Buena Island in the middle of the bay. By the end of the first week the wind had shifted to blow most of the smoke elsewhere, and air conditions began to return to normal.

Bay Bridge with Oakland shrouded in haze
Bay Bridge with Oakland shrouded in haze

On Saturday I went to Home Depot in Daly City to pick up weather stripping to fill the large gaps around my front door. This happened to be in the same aisle as the masks and respirators, which were completely sold out. There was still plenty of weather stripping available, though it was popular enough that the aisle in front of the display was crowded and I had to wait to select what I thought I needed.

By the second week the winds shifted back and forth in a single day, blowing smoke away from San Francisco in the morning and back to San Francisco in the afternoon. Air quality was good enough in the mornings that I could resume running, then shifted by the afternoon. I wrote on Twitter:

Day nine of the North Bay fires. The smoke and haze have returned to San Francisco, smelling of despair and fear.
The smoke catches in the nostrils and burns in the lungs. We hide behind masks and retreat indoors to escape the hateful stench.

By the end of the second week weather conditions had changed, bringing cooler and wetter weather instead of the hot, dry, and windy conditions that fanned the fires into a conflagration. For me, life returned to normal; even as I tried to remember that I was lucky that my house and my livelihood and my dreams were not destroyed by the fire.

you spend enough time with [Gem] and you'll get so stoned you'll want
to do something REALLY stupid like...
(drum roll)
...marry her
- Neelix, to Jaeger, 04 September 2001