Smoke Inhalation by Gayle Brandeis

It is 11:00 in the morning, but it looks like sunset, the air tinged with an eerie orange-gray light. Southern California is on fire, and we are breathing it in.
 
Yesterday, my son wanted to bring his scooter outside. He put on goggles, wrapped an Ace bandage around his mouth. It wasn't enough protection against the smoke as far as we were concerned.
 
"You could ruin your lungs for life if you exert yourself out there now," my husband said. Arin unwrapped the bandage and stayed inside.
 
Lungs are definitely something we have to think about. Our valley, known both affectionately and sneeringly as the Inland Empire, is the smog capital of the West Coast, if not the entire country. Kids who grow up in this region have 30% less lung capacity than the average American child, a statistic that makes me cringe, makes me want to blow clean pure air down my kids' throats. When I first moved out here to go to college, my lungs freaked out. The smog was so bad, I had to crawl up the hill to the administration building a couple of times, because my lungs wouldn't let me walk. Now I step outside, and my lungs contract against the smoke. I can feel them curl into fists inside my chest.
 
We watch the statistics on the news. Two people killed, then six, then sixteen. Four houses burned, then dozens, then hundreds. More and more spots flare on the map on the screen. Our town has not been hit, but we watch nearby towns show up on the radar as we watch the smoke roll in. Not long ago, we could see big curdy billows on the horizon, but now the air is so saturated with ash, we can't see that far in the distance.
 
I look at the ash on our front porch, on our yard, on our cars, on the window sills, on the soles of our shoes, and think about all that is contained inside of it. In that ash is someone's prom dress, someone's dining room set, someone's Barbie doll, someone's chandelier. In that ash is someone's hair, someone's skin, someone's comfort food, someone's memory. All of it is raining down on us, all those individual stories burnt into a uniform grit.
 
What would we take if our neighborhood is evacuated? Our photographs. Our computers. My notebooks. Some clothes. That's pretty much all we need. That, and all of us together, safe. I look at all of our stuff, and think it's just stuff. I could live without it. And I know that's true. But then I look at our stuff some more, and it all suddenly seems so precious. My Vishnu lunchbox, my purple velvet chair, I don't want you to burn!
 
The conditions were definitely ripe for something like this to happen. Just a couple of months ago, we were up in the mountain community of Idyllwild (a community which, so far, hasn't been hit by flames.) Almost every other tree, it seemed, had a spray painted mark on it, meaning it was dead, slated to be removed. Almost every other house, it seemed, had a For Sale sign in the front yard. "Why are so many houses on the market?" we asked at a little market. "Everyone wants to get out before the fire hits," the woman told us, and handed us our frozen yogurt. The cool vanilla soothed our parched tongues.
 
I want to douse these fires with frozen yogurt. I want to do something to keep the flames at bay. I was driving home from Pasadena Saturday night, and I could see a river of fire, surprisingly vermilion, mesmerizing, coursing down a hill towards the freeway. I could see a helicopter dump retardant over the fire, and I was shocked by how tiny and ineffectual the copter and its cache of gray spray looked in relation to the burning. This is big, I realized. This is so much bigger than us.
 
Fire, of course, is a way our planet tries to bring itself back into balance, which is something I can appreciate on an intellectual, metaphorical level-our poor Earth is so out of balance--but when I watch lives destroyed, be they human, animal, plant, it is harder to take the reality in. Instead, I find my mind drifting to fantasy.
 
I think about the rocket fuel that has been found in lettuce grown in our region. I imagine the fire igniting heads of iceberg, shooting them out of the ground like so many cannonballs. I imagine the leaves separating, drifting back down to Earth, gently tamping out the flames.
 
I think about how flame retardant has been found in American mothers' breast milk, and I imagine thousands, millions, of nursing mothers flying above the fires, holding their breasts in their hands, squirting fountains of milk to extinguish the inferno.
 
I want these bad things-rocket fuel in lettuce, flame retardant in mothers' milk-to turn around, show themselves to be useful. I want us to redeem ourselves as citizens of this planet.
 
I look out the window at the strange orange light. I can smell the smoke, even with all the windows and doors closed. I want this fire to remind us of the power of nature, to remind us to respect and protect our gorgeous planet. But I also want the fire to end, want us all to be able to breathe freely again. I feel a strange prickling in my chest, like milk letting down, as I watch the ash fall, soft as snow.
 
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel, winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband and two children.