Every other week for the past 18 years, my wife and I have made a five-hour round-trip drive between Berkeley and Mendocino County, Calif. She has a health care practice in both places, so our rural home isn’t a retreat; nonetheless, like others who had the option, when the pandemic kicked in we opted for the country, where social distance is axiomatic and anxiety less likely.
But that was before fire season, which has just returned with a vengeance. (Just as hurricanes have resumed storming the Gulf.) In the past week, hundreds of blazes have incinerated more than a million acres, destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and buildings and taken seven lives.
Such devastation is now an annual occurrence. Last October, when Covid-19 was just a gleam in a fruit bat’s eye and Pacific Gas and Electric shut off power throughout Northern California during a red-flag fire alert, we packed up and drove south toward the Bay Area. We turned back, however, in Sonoma County, where the Kincade conflagration closed U.S. 101. We considered heading east to I-5, but that was shut down by a different fire. Same for the coastal route.
Luckily we found a supermarket with ice and retreated to our Mendocino cabin for another night, endangered only by lack of light. Forest fires haven’t threatened our property, but they’ve come within a few miles. We’ve spent a lot of time this summer cutting tree limbs and clearing brush, but still we know that one day we might need a refuge from our refuge — fleeing one disaster into the maw of another. Fire season, of course, was bad enough before. But pandemic-fire season is disaster squared: a collaboration of catastrophes.
This was immediately evident in evacuation centers. More than 100,000 people have had to abandon their homes during the past week, but since packing hundreds of refugees indoors at close quarters doesn’t conform to coronavirus guidelines, some are checking into guest-starved hotels. But lodging costs money, which is notably in short supply for too many people — especially with senators on vacation, speaking of making things worse.
And the California wine business, already hurting at the hands of the pandemic, now faces the specter of “smoke taint” in grapes, few of which had been harvested before the fires started.
In San Francisco, where the twin-calamity challenge is more about tolerance than survival, disaster dissonance is also on display. Back in the (now carefree-seeming) spring when everything shut down, people embraced the great outdoors. Because germs are better dispersed outside, and exercise is good for the mind and immune system, public parks filled up so fast that social distancing there was hard to maintain. You might think you could take your mask off in nature, but turns out you have to keep putting it back on whenever somebody comes around the next bend — which is to say, every other minute.
Now we’re supposed to stay inside because smoke-filled air isn’t safe to breathe. Even if we wanted to buck the advisories and take our chances, parks are closed because of fire danger. (The good news: Trails are now empty.) We’ve all been dreading the onset of winter and its Covid-19 consequences indoors, but to paraphrase a local doctor at a hospital faced with closing an outdoor waiting area because of the unhealthy air quality: It’s like winter started in August.
Then there’s the mask conflict. Not whether to wear one; in the politically correct Bay Area, most of us do. The question now is what kind. For the pandemic we were told that N95 paper masks (especially those with respirator valves) were no good: “Because the valve releases unfiltered air when the wearer breathes out, this type of mask doesn’t prevent the wearer from spreading the virus,” the Mayo Clinic advised. For the last several fire seasons, however, N95’s were de rigueur, acquiring the M.I.A. status of pandemic toilet paper.
As it happens, I still have an N95 left over from last year. But which am I supposed to wear now? N95 to protect myself or fabric to protect others? Both? Layering does offer style options, and the pandemic has shown that face coverings can be a fashion statement. So I’m going with cloth over paper, as the outlaw image of even a faux bandanna is cooler than the health-freak look of the N95. (Remember when people in protective masks seemed paranoid? Now we all are, corresponding with the general “Could you ever have imagined?” state of the union.)
The catastrophe convergence is, of course, also at work in hurricane regions, whose ramifications we’re witnessing this week. Relief-wise, it’s awkward that hurricane season overlaps with fire season, and that the two major climate-change disaster scenarios involve opposite forces: fire and water. Again, this contemporary crisis paradigm has got us coming and going.
And don’t even get me started about disaster cubed: During the past week, our part of Mendocino County experienced more than 40 earthquakes.
David Darlington is a California-based writer, the author of five books and winner of a National Magazine Award and a James Beard Award.
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