Life Matters

A whiff of smoke

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When I was about 10 years old, our house caught on fire. My dad, ever the do-it-yourself-er, had installed our gas washer and dryer without properly venting the dryer. Fuzzy little balls of lint built up under the dryer until it hit the pilot flame and, poof, a fire was up and running, anxious to get out from underneath the dryer.

Unfortunately, it was the middle of the night and we were all in bed. Fortunately, my dad had developed an unusual thirst, and got up to get a drink of water, giving him a good view of the impending flames. He screamed for us to get up and leave the house, scooped my brother out of his bed, and ran out the front door. Petrified, I still managed to catch a glimpse of the flames as they made their way down the corridor of our ranch house; bright reds, yellows and oranges advancing with such fury that it looked like they would consume me before leaving the house. The hot, acrid fumes filled my lungs, and I thought if the flames don’t get me; the fumes surely would burn me from the inside out. It was a petrifying experience, but we escaped unharmed. Unfortunately, our house was not as lucky, and needed to be rebuilt. (My dad put in an electric washer and dryer after that.) Although the experience of this fire has crossed my mind from time to time, I had not experienced posttraumatic stress until recently.

Last week, on our way to spend Thanksgiving with my son’s family in Maui, we had to change planes in San Francisco. With a two-hour layover, it should have been uneventful, and inside the airport it was business as usual. Outside was a different story, with a thick fog enveloping the planes and workers. When one could see their bodies through the denseness, it was apparent that they were wearing masks similar to those contagious people are supposed to wear in walk-in clinics. I knew San Francisco could be foggy, but had never realized the extent of the muck, especially late in the afternoon. 

When I caught up with our son later in the day, he informed me that the thick fog in San Francisco was, in actuality, smoke from the wild fires in California. He mentioned that his own office in a new, state of the art facility that prided itself on circulating outside air was also engulfed in smoke, even though it was more than 150 miles away from any of the fires. They had, in fact, canceled work for a few days due to the unhealthy air, with the acrid smoke painful to breathe even that far away from its origin.

The fires in California had reached epic proportions, the largest in history. Watching the news, I saw people trying to leave affected areas, only to be stuck in traffic so hot that the tires of their vehicles began to melt. Propane tanks exploded and telephone poles shot sparks. People panicked and left quickly, leaving all of their worldly possessions, and sometimes their medications and pets, behind. The daytime sky was so full of ash and smoke that people reported it was like driving at night. I watched as one fire truck forced its way through the flames to get to the hospital only to find the hospital on fire. Pictures showed vast areas that were completely burnt, carcasses of cars and metal furniture eerily gleaming through the smoke and ashes. It was reported that asthma, respiratory and heart conditions continued to plague residents who had fled but had breathed in the chemicals released when the homes had burned; insulation, metals, plastics and other high concentrations of toxic particles. Physicians are worried about the long-term effects of breathing such pollutants.

The recent fires in California devoured more than one million, six hundred sixty seven, eight hundred and fifty five acres. To put that in context, the state of Rhode Island is seven hundred seventy six, nine hundred and fifty seven acres. The fire burned more than twice the size of Rhode Island. Good-bye Scarborough, good-bye University of Rhode Island. Good-bye East Greenwich, Coventry and Cranston. Good-bye Providence, Smithfield, Newport and Woonsocket. Good-bye Apponaug, Potowomut, Greenwood and Oakland Beach. Imagine the whole state of Rhode Island a desolate landscape of burned houses and businesses, its whole population homeless, hundreds of people dead, a thousand people missing. 

Possibly we have become accustomed to catastrophes and natural disasters. I know I had, right up until the point the memory of the fire in my childhood home surfaced. One never forgets such fearful anxiety, and to multiply that thousands fold is almost unimaginable.

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