In 2018, writer McKenzie Funk and his family moved from Seattle to tiny Ashland, Oregon. Famed for its beautiful location, navigable size, and annual Shakespeare Festival, Ashland’s “economy relies,” Funk writes, “above everything else, on its quality of life.” Funk quickly learns that Ashland is becoming known for another thing: horrific seasonal air quality caused by forest fires. Tasked with reviewing a few books on climate change for the London Review of Books, Funk quickly finds himself living in the very catastrophe he was reading about, as he tries to understand this new world order.
When a building is burning, firefighters usually try to extinguish every last flame. It’s a fight to the death, over in a matter of hours. When thousands or tens of thousands of acres of forest are burning, the major goal is containment, a kind of negotiated peace with a force greater than man. Wildland firefighters try to halt a blaze’s progress, encircling it with natural or manmade firebreaks. They work to keep the flames away from people and property, hoping to hang on until environmental conditions – humidity, wind speed and direction – change and the autumn rains finally arrive. Many wildfires are left to smoulder, and to smoke, for weeks or months on end, causing little newsworthy damage. Disasters like the conflagration that consumed Paradise, California, in November, killing 81 people – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history – do happen. But the climate disaster facing millions of other residents of the American West is more insidious. In a town like Ashland, the smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burn diminution of the way life here used to be.
On the afternoon the boys and I arrived the town and the Rogue Valley where it sits were surrounded by nine separate wildfires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States: 321 on the Air Quality Index. The AQI scale is colour-coded – green-yellow-orange-red-purple-maroon – to denote health risk, and we were well into maroon, or ‘hazardous’. Outside, the air was totally still and the temperature had hit 100°F. It looked like dusk in the middle of the day. Inside, the boys’ upstairs room was like a furnace, but we couldn’t open the skylights for fear of letting the smoke in. We rushed out to buy an air-conditioning unit. At the hardware store down the road, we got the last child-size smoke masks on the shelves, the ones rated N95 for the particulate matter the internet said we really needed to keep out of their lungs. Prepping for the unknown, we ordered a dozen more masks from China on Amazon.