Updated: Sep 23, 2020
‘It burns your chest’: Oregon residents struggle to live with relentless smoke
HAPPY VALLEY, Ore. — It’s been a week since Deborah Stratton breathed clean air. The 54-year-old and her friend evacuated their homes in Estacada, Ore., last week as flames approached. They spent days sleeping in their cars in a Walmart parking lot, using their last $12 on showers at a truck stop. Finally, they found their way here, to a shopping mall about 20 miles away from their town, in a parking lot where a Red Cross volunteer began pitching them a tent.
But the smoke followed them, hanging heavy in the air, sticking to the back of Stratton’s throat. “It burns your chest,” Stratton said, eating nachos in the Clackamas Town Center parking lot Sunday afternoon. “It’s gotten thicker and thicker.”
A week after wildfires began ravaging the state and displacing thousands of people, the air quality in many parts of Oregon ranks among the world’s worst, as bad as the pollution “airpocalypse” in Beijing in 2013. As white, thick clouds hover over buildings and highways, a miserable reality is setting in for Oregonians: They can flee from the fires, but they can’t escape the smoke.
Nauseating and suffocating, it lingers — in clothes, on hair, in bedsheets. No shower seems capable of getting rid of it, no air freshener can mask the scent. It seeps inside, even with windows and doors closed. Crack a car door open and it finds its way in. Turn on the air conditioning and the vents spit out even more. Put on your mask and it smothers you in the smell of ash.
“It’s like sticking yourself in a little room with 12 people all around you, smoking cigarettes,” said Lisa Jones, Stratton’s friend. It’s a terrifying reminder that somewhere, nearby, a fire is still burning. “It makes me feel like it’s not over, like it’s still coming.”
The wildfires ripping through Oregon have claimed at least 10 lives and at least 22 people have been reported missing, state officials said Monday. Lower temperatures and higher humidity have allowed firefighters to make progress on the blazes, but many of the state’s fires continue to rage with little containment. A long-awaited rain, originally forecast for Monday, is not expected until Wednesday or Thursday, said Doug Grafe, chief of fire protection at the Oregon Department of Forestry. And with it, the rain could bring thunderstorms and lightning, which could ignite more fires, he said.
“Without question, our state has been pushed to its limits,” said Gov. Kate Brown (D). “The smoke blanketing the state is a constant reminder that this tragedy has not yet come to an end.”
In hospitals across the state, health officials already are seeing the impact of the hazardous air. Ten percent of all emergency-room visits in Oregon are for asthma-like symptoms, said Gabriela Goldfarb, a manager in the environmental public health section of the Oregon Health Authority. State officials said they plan to send 250,000 N95 respirator masks to agricultural workers and Native American tribes to protect them from the smoke. And they do not expect to see somewhat clearer skies until late in the week.
“Even in some places where there may be limited improvement at times,” Goldfarb said, “that just means dropping from one bad air category to the next.”
In Portland, the smoke and fog Sunday and Monday covered everything in sight. The waterfront, usually filled with runners and dog-walkers, was empty. On bridges above the Willamette River, nothing but white clouds could be seen on either side.
In the city’s Hawthorne district, known for its boutiques and restaurants, many businesses were dark Sunday. Coffee shops and storefronts that had recently hung up signs with the words “Welcome back!” and “We’re now open” now displayed scrawled-out words on sheets of paper taped to their doors: “Closed due to air.”
Across town, Mark Rohner sat waiting at a bus stop, wearing a neck gaiter over an N95 mask, dampened with water and eucalyptus to help him breathe. He had stayed home for the past three days, hiding from the smoke that had been giving him headaches and making him dizzy. Even a half-hour trip to the grocery store left him feeling nauseated.
He wished he did not need to go out, but he had rent to pay, and he needed to go to his job in property leasing. It felt like the beginning of the pandemic all over again, each trip out of the house bringing risks of exposure. “It’s like, okay, what next?” he said. “When is it too much? When do you stop?”
Not owning a car, Rohner had no way to escape the city. And even if he could, where would he go? He could take a train to the outskirts of Portland, but “what do you do when you get to the edge of town?”
The smoke was even worse in other parts of the state. He envied one of his friends, who fled to Boise, Idaho. “It just feels claustrophobic,” he said. Even after being stuck in quarantine in the pandemic, “I feel more trapped than usual.”
In northeast Portland, DeShawn Brown pulled his FedEx truck to the side of the road, its doors and windows open as always. A delivery driver for a private contractor, Brown rolled a cart up to an apartment building and unloaded cardboard boxes. “It slows me down,” Brown, 45, said of the smoke. “The other guys, too, trying to figure out how to breathe. Because this is how we roll, with the door open.”
Across town, standing outside a church, 60-year-old Teberih Medhanie wore a blue mask and a headscarf as she waited for her son to pick her up from a funeral for a relative. She had been trying to avoid the outside at all costs and was too scared to drive in the heavy smoke.
Her son, Jordan Taylor, worried about how the smoke could affect his mother’s health, and his own. The outdoors had been his way of coping with quarantine. He missed the sunlight, the vitamin D, the long walks outside.“We can’t be inside with people. Now we’ve got this smoke and we can’t be outside,” Taylor said. “You can’t get a breath of fresh air.”
As darkness fell Sunday over the Clackamas Town Center parking lot, about 10 miles from Portland, Karol Parham’s eyes were swollen and her voice raspy from the smoke. She sat on a lawn chair drinking a beer next to her new friend, Ryan Brault, using an upside-down cardboard box as a makeshift table. After spending days parked next to each other, each living out of a car, they had become neighbors in their community of fire evacuees.
A Red Cross volunteer had given them a tent, but neither wanted to sleep in it. They felt more comfortable in their cars, where they could circulate the air to keep from breathing in the smoke. Brault had figured out a nightly routine: He runs the air in his car for half an hour, turns it off, and turns it back on a few hours later. He knows it is time for more air when he feels his eyes start to burn, he said. “Every couple of hours you can just feel it,” he said. “It wakes you up.”
The headaches and pain in Parham’s chest always feel worse at night, when the smoke feels thicker, she said. “Your lips get dry,” Parham said. “You drink water like crazy.” Yards away, Stratton held her inhaler to her mouth and breathed in. Before, she used the inhaler rarely, only about once a week. Since the smoke arrived, she has used it nearly five times a day, she said.
With a toothbrush, shampoo and towel in her hands, she walked to the Red Cross showers, hoping to finally feel clean after another day smothered in smoke. It made her anxious to always smell like this, she said: “I just feel dirty, all the time.”
Minutes later, she returned with wet hair and clean pajamas, ready to crawl into her tent and watch TV on her phone. She opened up the driver’s door to her Ford Explorer and spritzed some of her favorite body spray, a “Twilight” scent she hoped would mask the smoke.
It barely worked. “I can smell it already,” she said. More smoke.