The Air We Breathe – Caught In The Bay Area Smoke Out

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Our family lives in Northern California in the Bay Area and we’ve been caught in an unusual situation, covered with smoke. As wildfire survivors who lost our home and all our possessions eleven years ago, it’s been a challenging couple of weeks as smoke from the Camp Fire rolled in and, like a stealthy dragon, wound its tail around our beautiful area. I was already having trouble with the news and praying fervently for friends’ relatives who were threatened in different fires throughout California. But suddenly…

We awoke hearing sirens and seeing complete smoke outside the windows on a Saturday morning. My instincts kicked in, surveying what was happening. We thought there was a nearby fire and perhaps we needed to evacuate. But we couldn’t see through the enveloping smoke which direction it was coming from, and turned to the news to find the whole area had been smothered overnight as the smoke from the huge Camp Fire had blown in and settled itself.

The satellite radio went out. There was no reception for the whole area due to very thickening smoke.

Bay Area map with purple readings of bad air quality with resilience expert Elizabeth Van Tassel

Image courtesy of a great resource for measuring air quality. Green is good, yellow is okay, red and purple are dangerous.

Living in a bubble inside our house, we constructed one small area adjacent to the kitchen to retain the warmth of cooking and a small space heater. Going outside or running the heat became more and more risky, then scary as the air quality numbers jumped up and soared to impossible numbers. So I was surrounded by reminders of how unsafe we were. How precious every breath is.

This has a particular effect over time:

It’s very hard to write when I don’t feel safe. I was participating in NanoWriMo, a national effort to write a novel in a month, and had just completed a 5,000-word day of writing prior to the worsening smoke situation. We also have had difficulty with another possibly threatening situation and so those added together, along with the loud noises of a neighbor using jackhammers and bobcats smashing down walls, made it difficult to write. I couldn’t work to create another world where my characters are threatened and the stakes were high when I felt that myself. Instead, a numbness fell over me. A deep sadness tethered itself to my side, and every time I checked on the fires, I just cried for the families having to start over. My social media was filled with loss from authors and friends and family who were struggling. I know what they’re facing. I know what they’ve lost. Especially young families who will miss playing with their kids and being in a familiar area—possibly for several years—because there’s no housing anywhere nearby and, if they were lucky enough to have insurance, they’ll be writing and re-writing reports for many years. And even their school may be gone, too. I also fell ill with the flu and turned to watching the Hallmark Christmas shows where at least the predictability and positive themes were comforting.

Smoky hills and setting from the Camp Fire in the Bay Area with resilience expert author Elizabeth Van Tassel.

The second-to-worst day with red readings, it got worse the next day but photos don’t show much, with even the far house hard to see. Readings were twice the amount in Beijing, China!

A feeling of heaviness lingered and wouldn’t leave. Like the wisps of gray dragon tendrils lurking outside my window, sadness moved in and camped out. One of my sons had a very bad reaction to the smoke with several nose bleeds that were hard to stop and a sudden onset of a deep chest cough. We tolerated it for three more days, awakening each morning to find school canceled and then waiting several painful hours to discover whether his play he was in, The Lion King, was canceled or not. And it was. No being Mufasa today. Then the other son, who was hundreds of miles south where the air was better, called and said the winds had changed and a huge competition for finals, for thousands of kids up and down the whole West Coast, was canceled due to the smoke. It felt like everything wholesome and good was being blocked. My chest constricted. My stomach flipped and felt awful. And the flames tickled my renewed memories of our own past. But there were no real flames. Just disappointment and that connected sadness of feeling helpless to make a difference for others when I felt so numb myself.

The Lion King produThe Lion King play was canceled due to smoke. With resilience expert and author Elizabeth Van Tassel.

When they canceled The Lion King, it was pretty shocking. And school. And band competitions. And warning everyone to stay inside. Joey is Mufasa on the Pride Rock here.

Finding rest became an elusive treasure, and I couldn’t find the map. My dreams were filled with fight and flee scenes akin to Marvel Comics and The Hunger Games. I awoke exhausted from fighting for my life or the safety of others in my dreams. We left the area overnight to breathe and see the pretty air in Carmel, but our hotel was filled with refugees from the smoke and other people who’d actually lost their homes and were trying to figure out their next steps. At dinner, we sat next to young couples with kids that were having the same conversations we lived out eleven years ago. So even our rest break turned into a deep reminder of loss and empathy for all those with dirtier cars, heavily dusted with ash and filled to the brim with pictures and cases of what’s left in the trunk.

The big fashion statement became which mask we would wear. I bought two kinds of masks as soon as the darkening smoke rolled in, just knowing from past experience that there might be a run on them. But I didn’t realize that, in a house filled with boys, I’d purchased air breathers with hot pink sides. Enormous hot pick sides. Think Pepto Bismo pink. Or baby piggy pink. Joey didn’t want any more cough or bloody noses and bravely wore it every time we stepped outside, even to take out the trash and dash back inside, and to school when it reopened the following week. The bully at school teased him endlessly, but he kept it on. The smoke lingered, and I sat there considering bedazzling sparkle patterns that would still allow the air through the ventilation areas. My friends posted family pictures in bright blue masks (where were those when I shopped??). We risked a lunch away from home in an outdoor shopping area (we sat inside though) and here’s what the high fashion displays looked like below. If you didn’t wear your mask, you could feel the glare of others judging you silently. People even posed in front of a huge Christmas tree in their masks. It was surreal. I began to carry them at all times and check the air quality numbers before heading out. It’s not a natural thing to see children in big masks covering their faces and running by you playing together. Were we in the Twilight Zone? It sure felt like it was so.

Pigs wearing air filter masks with resilience expert and author Elizabeth Van Tassel

Passing by a shoe store, I spotted these Christmas pigs wearing air masks. Sort of funny, but a commentary on how the weirdness had spread…

Then there was light. I awoke very early today, before sunrise and something was different as I sought out my phone. There was eerie light in the room. Our home is perched on a hill and we have a peek-a-boo view of a big city below in the valley. I realized the night lights had been blocked for two weeks and suddenly there was ambient light filling the room. It was the city! I could see it once again with its gorgeous twinkling lights and large antenna. I turned on my phone and pulled up the air quality map and all the dark purple and red remained. Until I hit refresh. I heard a scratch against the window, and realized the wind must be blowing gently outside. Wind! Could it be? Maybe it drizzled overnight… And like waving a magic wand all the red sores turned to green, gorgeous numbers with some yellow ones nearby. Green is very good. I danced around the house in the dark! I celebrated by turning on the heat and rejoicing in not having shaking, chilly hands while making coffee since inside we’d turned off the heater to maintain our hopefully lower air numbers and the crisp temperature, only a few degrees higher than the chilly air outside, had filled the house.

Beautiful sunrise with resilience expert and author Elizabeth Van Tassel

Such a glorious sunrise today. The first time we’ve seen these hills for weeks. What a Thanksgiving blessing!

Still, the thoughtfulness after all these years. One friend called to see how we were holding up once she realized no one was leaving their homes. San Francisco was toxic and all the surrounding areas. Another loving friend sent us a case of gardenia vines for my birthday to fill the air and rid it of lingering charcoal elements. The kitchen and sitting area are the warm places we’d designated since we couldn’t use the heat, and definitely couldn’t light a fire to warm up the house! As I write this, I’m surrounded by her thoughtful gift and our home feels like a gardener’s paradise with the aroma. The plastic covers are rustling with the wonderful sound of the heat kicking on. How had I ever taken heat for granted? Warm air poured out. My son with the cough came and settled on the couch and I gave him hot tea. Then the sky broke forth in praise to the Creator of all with an amazing sunrise. I stepped outside to enter the moment fully. Tears filled my eyes. It was—so very wow. There were hills and trees and homes where smoke had smothered and grayed it all out for days and weeks. The birds were singing and it smelled wonderful outside, with a gentle sweetness after the first sprinkle of rain.

Gardenias filling our home. with author and resilience expert Elizabeth Van Tassel

The scent of gardenias fills my home as I’m writing this. What a wonder of thoughtfulness!

So this Thanksgiving, when I’m cooking up a storm and smiling at my dear loved ones, hearing the gentle cough of my son as it hopefully subsides and leaves soon, I’ll remember those in California and other affected areas who are not yet feeling relief. Maybe the air there is still choking with every breath. Maybe it looks like the moon when they’ve visited the place they raised their children and loved ones for so long. Maybe the whole town is gone and it’s time to regroup. Maybe they’re still washing the smoke smell from their skin and hair since they had to escape and it doesn’t come out for about a week. Maybe they’re just…surviving.

My husband walked back here and we’re making a game of guessing the numbers as they continue to fall. 30….25…..21…..and now, 17. My smile and giggles explode. My heart is split between relief for us and the wisps of knowledge knowing I’ve got to do something to help these people in loss. I’m open. I’m listening. I’m grateful. Maybe that’s enough for today.

Hugs your dear ones, pray for those walking through the ashes, and believe a better day is coming. You are loved no matter where or which place you are in. Heaven and his Master are yours to call on in thanks today.


­­­­­­­­To read our wildfire story, co-written with my older son who was four and a half when we escaped, go HERE.

To contribute to the best cause I know to help families now stuck in new beginnings, go to United Policy Holders, a nonprofit advocacy group that walks people through the process of rebuilding their lives.

To download my video resources, and a key brochure which does a lot of the thinking for you, and gives important first steps, go to my shopping cart HERE.

And hugs, friends. Lots of love to you all.


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