Monday, September 7, 5:41 pm
The sky is a hazy sherbet orange.
When I went into work this afternoon, nothing was out of the ordinary. But now, three hours later, smoke has filled the sky’s expanse, the sunset painting it peachy, and it’s unclear whether it’s from Washington in the north, California in the south, or an Oregon town to the east of us. They’re all burning.
I trudge through the lawn to my front door with weary feet. This morning, I awoke feeling inexplicably anxious. The sharp, breathless feeling has followed me all day, clouding all my thoughts in a distractible fog. It’s a relief to be breathing fresh air through an unmasked nose.
The wind tonight is unnatural. It blows through in warm bursts, insistent yet strangely gentle, pausing between gusts as if the horizon is drawing breath. It unsettles my neighbor’s wind chimes and they sing eerily into the quiet evening. Someone in the apartment complex is playing music. The lyrics are indistinct but the melody echoes across the pavement towards my solitary trek.
I think it feels unearthly, like a scene from a movie, and then I’m tempted to laugh at my own melodrama.
Tuesday, September 8, 5:36 pm
Tonight the sky is a deep, foreboding red. The wind is still blustering and warm. When I cross the bridge on campus, the canyon looms beneath like a dark mass, the sky reflecting blood-red on the surface of the creek. I haven’t had dinner so I’m hurriedly shoving crackers beneath my mask.
In the quad, there are areas marked off with caution tape. There was a windstorm last night and branches are strewn across campus, and I’ve heard rumors of whole trees falling around town. Much of Newberg lost power but despite flickering several times, ours held out—unlike our Wi-Fi, which gave out in the evening.
I’m alone on the quad. The smoke makes the sky darker than it should be; it feels late. Too late to still be on campus, but here I am, heading to a meeting. Lamps light my path, coating the grass in a clinically bright light. I chart a circuitous path through the grass to avoid a section of sidewalk blocked by caution tape, then find my feet almost unconsciously slowing to a stop. I don’t know why, but the urge to stand still in this dark silence is almost overwhelming.
It doesn’t strike so much as creep up on me that this could be the end. Not that it is the end—I’m not one for apocalypse predictions, and I think Jesus still has plenty of work for His church. But just that it could be—this suddenly, this quietly, this warm and red and unsettlingly. One moment, a meeting, the next, this.
Tuesday, September 8, 8:42 pm
“Apparently there’s a fire in Newberg,” Kimberly says, her phone screen glowing in my peripheral vision. The four girls in my apartment decided, on a whim, to drive into Beaverton for bubble tea, and now we’re heading back into Newberg. I’m driving, a plastic cup half-full of milk tea in hand. It’s a pleasing shade of pastel pink and it tastes faintly of soap.
The fire is reportedly within 10 miles of where we live. When we turn onto the road which leads to our apartment, we can see the fire on the hillside—a deceptively small, smoldering patch.
We get home. We check twitter, which has become a microcosm of wildfire panic. We un-silence our phones, so we can hear alerts coming in. Alli calls her mom. We’re rather lighthearted about the ordeal. After everything 2020 has thrown at us, packing bags for a potential wildfire evacuation feels just characteristically bizarre enough to laugh about.
Wednesday, September 9, 8:17 pm
We didn’t have to evacuate, though attempting sleep while expecting to hear an alert (unsurprisingly) leads to poor rest.
Somehow, we are expected to continue attending classes. I’m lucky to not have any on Wednesdays, and when I ask to work remotely my supervisor obliges. I stay in my pajamas. The sky stays dim and orange—an endless evening. I begin doing my hair in preparation for a zoom meeting, but then it gets rescheduled. I choose to keep the pajamas on.
The day stretches on, nearly endless, and our windows glow orange even when the blinds are closed.
Thursday, September 10, 6:12 pm
The vestiges of candlelight orange have fled the sky. Instead, the horizon is foggy with smoke. It reminds me of Brookings, the coastal hometown of my parents, where it gets so foggy you can’t see two blocks down the road. Except this fog burns and leaves the taste of campfire in my mouth.
The air index is 239—a number that means nothing to me, except I’m told it’s classified as “very unhealthy.” Emails from public officials tell us to stay inside as much as possible. Emails from our school cheerily inform us that we are still to come to class. This seems like a questionable choice considering we’re living in the midst of a pandemic whose chief symptom is coughing and other respiratory problems… and smoke causes coughing and other respiratory problems.
Going about business as usual is surreal. And isn’t that just a representation of this whole year? The pandemic, the closing borders, the political unrest, the election drama, the church conflict, the university mismanagement, and now: fires! And that’s not even a comprehensive list. Most people I’ve spoken to have manifold stressors in their personal lives, too. And here we are, going on.
Sometimes I just lay on my floor, eyes closed, taking deep, deep breaths. Sometimes, when the sky isn’t full of pollutants, I take silent walks around the neighborhood and pray meditative prayers. Sometimes I set the schoolwork aside and laugh myself silly with my roommates. There’s something holy about these rituals—about seeking quiet when the world is clamoring or laughter when everything is heavy. They remind me that life isn’t all flame and smog and unnatural skies.
A note: I’ve been fortunate to have remained fairly safe throughout these fires, but I know the same cannot be said of many communities. My prayers are with the displaced and first responders. If you’re looking to pray but can’t find the words, I’ve found this prayer to be grounding. If you’re looking to financially support impacted communities, the Red Cross is always a good place to start. Stay safe and sane, dear friends.