The booming West Coast fires from a boomer’s perspective

Every baby boomer has seen his or her share of disasters, manmade and natural both. But so much at once? It seems unprecedented… enough to even get the long silent and unsympathetic president of the United States finally to see the devastation in California. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs makes a few observations about this almost apocalyptic year of 2020.

The horrifying fires up and down the Pacific coast— with homes and lives and livelihoods turned to ash, whole cities suffocating on smoke, skies the color of a nuclear winter— these catastrophic conditions are a big news story.

Embers light up a hillside behind the Bidwell Bar Bridge as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, California. (Image: AP)

But if the fires out West instead were hurricanes back East where the media is concentrated, they’d be an even bigger story than they’ve been, so big that it might take World War III to replace them as the lead of every paper and every newscast.

You might understand why if you remember this famous mid-70s Saul Steinberg cover from The New Yorker Magazine, which then also became a popular poster. (Having reported for a television network with its Mother Ship in New York, I understand why in spades). It shows a myopic panorama looking west from the center of the world— Manhattan, of course— with just a few pimples popping up across the plains before you reach the Pacific.

But if you’re actually out West, the inferno has, for the time being, replaced the pandemic as the biggest influence on— and threat to— people’s lives.

Less than a week ago, I sent an email to far-flung members of my family, most in California, with a link to a pandemic-related New York Times article entitled, “How to Choose the Best Cloth Face Mask for You.” Just days later, the pandemic took a back seat to the fires and now instead we’re exchanging website links about how to find the most accurate measure of your local Air Quality Index. “Good” is zero to 50. “Moderate,” 51-100. Look at Portland’s weather today, September 14.

September 14, 2020 – Portland, Oregon’s weather conditions.

San Francisco’s hasn’t been much better. Just a few days before the city’s smoky sky turned the color of sewage water, my daughter Amy, an artist, was proudly on her way to the prestigious de Young Museum, where the newest painting in her coronavirus series will be shown.

Amy holds her real-life painting.

But the concentration on Covid was short-lived. Amy and her family are in a home built right after World War II, where now they’re not just locked down from the virus, but sealed in from the smoke. The air inside the house got so bad, they blue-taped over the vents in their garage door, tried to similarly seal the edges of the front windows, and squeezed rolled up towels into the gaps at the bottom of several doors.

Jake, with no school again today, September 14.

Meanwhile up in the High Sierras where my son Jason lives, seven-year-old grandson Jake excitedly flexed his muscles on his first day of first grade… before school was shut down the second day, not by the infectious virus, but by the inferno. Since then, about a third of his scheduled “in-person” school days have gone up in smoke. Imagine a school district, on top of all the other challenges from the pandemic, having to send out notices day after day telling families it can’t hold classes because “Smoke patterns and density are very difficult to predict,” and “all indicators are that the smoke today is forecast not to improve.” Ironically, if there’s any silver lining, it’s that because of the pandemic, schools are better positioned than they’d otherwise be to virtually stay connected to their students.

California Governor Gavin Newsom (white shirt) rips “ideological BS” around climate change and “absence of national leadership.” (Photo by Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

California’s governor Gavin Newsom gravely observed last weekend that breathing the air in large parts of California each day is the equivalent of smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. He also angrily said he has run out of patience for climate-change deniers: “If you do not believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence.”

My relatives do. Even if the flames aren’t yet close enough to see, they’re close enough to fear, so some have had bags packed for an emergency escape. It makes me mindful of a woman I interviewed many years ago a couple of days after her home in the Santa Barbara hills, along with hundreds of others, was burned to cinder by a fast-moving fire. When I asked what she grabbed as she rushed frantically to get out, she answered, “My kids, the cat…,” then she broke into tears and pointed to her car. “I just didn’t have any time to think. I just grabbed what I use every day.” On the deck of the station wagon were a vacuum cleaner, a kitchen blender, and a bunch of other stuff she could have replaced the next day at Walmart.

Authorities say, if you have to evacuate in an instant, grab the irreplaceable essentials (and maybe these days include a few masks). Some boil it down to “6 P’s:” People & Pets, Phones (& documents), Prescriptions (& glasses), Pictures (& Jewelry & Art), Personal computers, and Plastic (including ATM cards). Don’t forget the car keys either.

And a personal note: it’s not just the Pacific Coast. The past month here in drought-dry Colorado, we’ve had two flurries of bad fires. They didn’t turn our skies orange, but they did go white, which you can see when you compare the following photo from last week of a golf driving range in Colorado….

…. to a crystal clear shot from the same spot at the same time last year.

The problem isn’t losing a pretty view. It is losing breathable air. In our first flurry, we had ash falling from the sky. In the second, no more ash, but even more dangerous air, because the smaller the particulate matter, the more easily it pervades your lungs. Like the coronavirus, it’s the insidious, invisible enemy that can hurt you the worst.

It’s all we need, on top of the unchecked virus, the struggling economy, the divisive politics. What’s worse, officials on the West Coast say some fires will burn until put out by winter’s snow.

Not that they’ll notice on the East Coast, once the next hurricane hurls itself in.


  1. Oregon fires set by an arsonist.
    California fires set by “gender-reveal” fireworks and by PG&E antiquated infrastructure that they couldn’t afford to upgrade due to government-mandated pouring of resources into wind and solar. Now rolling blackouts. I’m so sorry for the pain and misery there, but climate-deniers aren’t responsible.

    1. Actual facts: the bulk of the burned acreage were caused by lightning strikes. The gender reveal was indeed a singular, beetle-headed incident, and only conspiracy theorist sites are attributing the Oregon fires to arson. Otherwise, the causes are unconfirmed/undiscovered. Regardless, these are what caused the ignition, but our forests are dry, parched timber-boxes due to climate.

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