Originally Published: 07 JUN 23 14:46 ET
Updated: 07 JUN 23 14:50 ET
Opinion by Tess Taylor
Editor’s note: Tess Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, including “Work & Days” and “Rift Zone.” She is releasing the anthology “Leaning Toward Light: Poems For Gardens and The Hands That Tend Them” this coming August. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN) — What do you do when the air fills with smoke from wildfires?
Well, if you’re a New Yorker or East Coast person and this is new to you, just know that you’re joining a reality that people across the West have been facing for several years now, in increasing chapters. In my life, we’ve experienced worsening wildfires in California and fled smoke several times, as well as just making do with it sometimes hanging over our lives for weeks.
When there’s smoke in the air, it’s hard on our kids and on all vulnerable populations. It’s hard on all of us. It’s a terrible thing.
For those living in close range, and those living downwind of the fires, smoke pollution is oppressive and scary. You want it to clear, but it’s not safe to go out in, and it can rip through your lungs.
I’ll never forget the day after a week of smoke, when I got impatient and took a short bike ride to clear my head. I rode, of all things, to the dentist’s office a mile away (it wasn’t really a joy ride, just a dumb errand). I came back wheezing, with a torn and rattly feeling in my lungs. That got my attention very fast. After that I did yoga inside and tried to lay low. But it’s hard and sad to wait as the planet burns around us.
I want to be clear: It’s not just that smoke is harmful. It’s also so deeply sad and unsettling. There’s a huge grief element to this, too. When we see smoke in the sky, we feel, in a new way, that we are losing a piece of the planet, of our lives, that many of us took for granted. We are suddenly in a new reality of harsh, unbreathable air. For many of us, it’s the moment when climate change hits home in a new, deeper way — we feel it in our lungs. Ash is scary. Smoke is scary. And — at extended lengths, with many particulates in the air — it’s dangerous, too.
Here are some things that are worth doing:
Buy an air purifier and a HEPA filter, if you can
If you can’t get one, getting a regular 20-inch home HVAC furnace air filter from a hardware store and duct taping it to a box fan can provide some relief. That’s a good cheap option if air purifiers are sold out. And this is important — if there is a lot of smoke, try to make your own area as safe as you can. Check which public facilities are available for vulnerable populations. Help your community be prepared to offer places for people to come in and rest and breathe if they need to. These resources matter a great deal.
Monitor the air quality
My family likes the PurpleAir app because it seems to have a finer grain toward minute-to-minute conditions, is easy to read and also has really clear indications when particulates are over the limit. It uses a network of community-based sensors. It’s worth installing one in your home if you want to join the network — it helps people near you understand how the air is in your neighborhood now. You both learn a lot and provide a community service at once. The EPA also offers AirNow, which is free and robust.
When air quality index value is high — over 100 for children or vulnerable folks, or over 150 for any long period of time — pay attention
Stay inside or with air filtration systems as much as possible. If you’re getting cooped up, try and see if there are times of day when the air is better than others, and venture out then. Similarly, when smoke hovered over the Bay Area for weeks, we’d find that sometimes a brisk breeze off the water helped provide pockets of breathable air. We’d find that it was windy in the afternoons, and we could get out for a spell.
Notice your feelings
Write them down. Share them. Call a friend. It is all right to feel angry or sad or depressed — and, perhaps, to begin to be curious about what new approaches you want to take to connecting this feeling of grief to the wider climate crisis.
Over the past few years, I have begun driving less and riding a bicycle a lot more. I am advocating for bicycle infrastructure in my city. I hang out my laundry as often as I can. I am an avid community gardener.
I don’t do these things because they are the whole solution, but because they feel a hell of a lot better than doing nothing and because they put me in touch with others who are working for change. And — oh yes, if you’re angry and sad or frustrated, it’s a good time to remember to vote for candidates who take climate issues seriously.
Consider giving yourself a break
If you are vulnerable, and the smoke is forecast to stay for a while, if you have the means, consider taking a break someplace else. I say this with care, because I know it is not realistic for all people at all times to simply up and leave.
However, after a month in California in the bad smoke, with two small kids who were coughing, we drove for 20 hours to South Dakota, and waited the fires out. This was an extreme resort, in an extreme time. I will say that choosing this option, if done mindfully, might remind us how deeply connected we are in this time of climate change, and give us compassion for others across the globe who are leaving their homes because the climate no longer supports them. This compassion and awareness could be a radical force, if channeled properly.
Here are some other things: In a strange way, the smoke from these terrible fires reminds us of some fundamentals. None of us is bigger or more important than our shared air. All of us have lungs. All of us share this delicate planet, which also has lungs and which we must collectively protect.
If we can take these scary moments as a warning to reconnect to one another, to find new ways to work for the change this planet so desperately needs of us, to extend kindness to one another, maybe there is some good that can come of the darkest smoke day.
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