Out of the frying pan, into the fire: California is burning and I am afraid

I don’t normally talk too much about my personal life here on the blog (at least, not in terms of day-to-day minutiae), but I’m currently living through a well-publicized statewide disaster that even our horrible President has commented on, so I thought it might help to capture a few thoughts while I’m in the midst of it. It’s mostly to make myself feel less crazy, living in such a clearly crazy situation.

Someone please throw his phone into the nearest body of water or fire pit or toilet. Yes, he really tweeted this; click the link if you don’t believe me.

It seems like a million years ago, but just before my husband and I moved to Sacramento this summer we lived through a wildfire that was less than a mile from our apartment in Alpine (dubbed by social media as the #WestFire). We actually missed a mandatory evacuation order that was given late in the day on Friday, which meant that we stayed overnight in our apartment inhaling the smoke from the fire and wondering and worrying about whether we should get our things together and flee with our cats.

Thankfully, nothing happened to us, and just as we were about to have to evacuate to a hotel room for a weekend we couldn’t really afford, we got the word that the fire had been contained and the evacuation orders had been lifted. We breathed a sigh of relief, and continued to monitor the situation until the fire was fully contained. I was on Twitter during that time, trying to get news about the area and make sure my family was safe. It was really helpful to know that other people were also keeping an eye on the community, watching out for one another, and discussing what to do online.

Cut to today. I am over 100 miles away from the Camp Fire in Butte County, safe from the immediate danger posed by this fire, but Sacramento’s air quality is being horribly affected nevertheless. Indeed, the Spare The Air website is currently advising that our air is “Very Unhealthy,” with a rating of 239 at 1 PM. This means that the amount of Fine Particulate Matter in the air (“a complex mixture that may contain soot, smoke, metals, nitrates, sulfates, dust, water and tire rubber”) is very dangerous, and should be avoided.

Local schools are closed because of the air quality, to put that number into human perspective.

We don’t have any masks or respirators at home, because we’ve never had to prep for the possibility of smoke inhalation for any extended period of time. As a result, it’s not advisable for us to leave the house unless we really can’t avoid doing so. We’ve been trying to find masks at local stores, but of course they sold out immediately, and even the local fire station (which is supposed to be distributing free masks) is closed.

I ordered a pack of three masks with respirators online from Amazon last night, but they aren’t projected to arrive until November 20th at the earliest – five days away – or November 26th at the latest – which is more than a week away.

We can’t breathe the air without a mask. It’s too toxic, too dangerous. Even going out for groceries yesterday, when we couldn’t have been outside for more than 15 minutes total, both my husband and I had horrible headaches afterward.

Staying indoors seems fine, so far. We have all our doors and windows closed tight, and have central heat/air, so we aren’t breathing the smoke. But it’s frightening knowing that we are surrounded by toxic air, from the deadliest fire the state has ever seen, and there is literally nothing we can do about it.

My husband works as a delivery driver, and he hasn’t been working because neither of us want him inhaling toxic smoke and particles. We are waiting for those masks. Again, they may be here in five days, or maybe not for more than a week. We just don’t know. (Ordering a rush delivery wasn’t an option, probably because so many people are trying desperately to get their hands on these kinds of masks.)

We don’t have any money to pack up our cats and our belongings and decamp to somewhere safer, where the air is still breathable, until who knows when. When will the air be normal again? When will the Camp Fire even be contained? When will we be able to go outside without masks?

There aren’t any answers. No one knows. It’s a natural disaster, with the emphasis on Mother Nature clearly in charge here.

On the one hand, I feel lucky that we aren’t in danger of dying in a fire, like we were in Alpine. Our home isn’t being threatened by flames. On the other hand, our home is being threatened by toxic smoke, and that is almost worse. After a fire, one can rebuild. In the toxic swirl of smoke, however, what can really be done?

I feel like I don’t have any right to complain. After all, I’m not one of the 300 missing, nor one of the 56 dead. I am relatively safe, here in Sacramento city limits. But I cannot leave my house without putting my health at risk. My husband cannot work. We are both glued to the news, worried. I am working as much as I can, to keep on paying for this shelter that is keeping us safe from the outside world. But what about all the people who can’t afford shelter? What about the people whose homes have been destroyed? What about the people who, like me, cannot simply leave town until this all blows over?

What about those of us that have nowhere else to go?

People outside of California can be callous. They may say we “deserve” this, because they believe – like our ignorant, arrogant President – that this fire was due to improper forest management. But that is simply not true. As the New York Times notes, “California’s current wildfires aren’t forest fires.” They’re actually starting in a zone called the “wildland-urban interface,” where more people are living and where fires are even more unpredictable. This applies both to NorCal’s Camp Fire and SoCal’s Woolsey Fire.

But even setting facts aside, people outside of California seem to believe that everyone who lives in this state is part of the 1%, and that is entirely untrue.

Like I said, I can’t afford to just pack up and leave until some unforeseen endpoint. I don’t have any savings to fall back on. I’m a freelancer who needs to work every day in order to keep paying my bills on time. So is my husband, who physically cannot work right now because it’s a health and safety hazard. We don’t have employers who will pay for our healthcare costs, nor any time off work, so it’s all on us.

And that’s not so different than many others who live here in California – as well as so many people just like us who live in the other 49 United States. I don’t say this so that others will pity me, but so that they will understand the truth. Californians are just like other hardworking Americans, and most of us are struggling to get by, too.

Meanwhile, on the east coast my friends are reporting freak snowstorms keeping them indoors. Having grown up in the Midwest and lived most of my life on the east coast, I would be perfectly happy to trade this toxic smoke for a snowstorm right now.

Of course, that is impossible.

So what are we to do?

People say this is simply “the new normal,” and that is horrifying. But if it is, then I think we all need to understand just what the new normal really is.

This new normal involves isolation, worry, fear. It makes me nervous, agitated. It keeps me trapped indoors.

I am sleeping a lot.

I am reading a lot of books.

One is Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, where he quotes Samuel Beckett:

“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Life feels very much like that, right now.

I feel like I’ve moved out of the frying pan and into the fire, where the smoke is the thickest.

California is burning, and I am terribly afraid.


  • Sandra Yeaman

    We down here in San Diego are all thinking of you and what you are going through in your new home. I pray that the masks arrive sooner or that the conditions on the ground improve so you aren’t stuck indoors for too long. If we can find masks here, let me know where to send them.

    • Laura Roberts

      Thanks for your support, Sandra! I heard from Mardie today as well, and it makes me feel a lot less scared to know that you’re all thinking about me. I spoke to my parents this afternoon, and they were able to find some masks in their neck of the woods (they’re out in TN), so they’re going to send those over ASAP and try to beat our Amazon order. It’s just so crazy to think this could be “normal” from now on…

  • Linda Curry

    Threatening to cut funds in the midst of such heartache and devastation is maybe the worst thing I have heard Donald Trump say. He never ceases to amaze but still he stays in the role of President. Coming from a country where the Prime Minister changes with monotonous regularity I think Politics in both our countries is seriously askew.

    Your plight is serious and overlooked by many who are following the destruction caused fires from afar. Thank you for your informative writing and I hope things improve soon for you.

    • Laura Roberts

      Thanks for your support, Linda! It is quite scary, watching the poor air quality numbers go up and up. Apparently San Francisco managed to top the scale of poor air quality worldwide today, even above several cities in India, and in Sacramento we are in much the same boat, though without any potential bay winds to move the smoke along. They are predicting rain for next Wednesday, which may help some, so I am holding out some hope there.