By Carissa Lee
There must be something wrong with the sun today. The afternoon sunlight streams through the car window an eerie orange color. It’s hot, but our A/C is turned off so as not to let the outside air through.
We don’t say a word. Maybe it’s just the heat. My mother is sweating a little — the fuzzy jacket, clearly a mistake — as she steadily guides the Prius up the hill and into our garage with a learned hand.
As the garage door begins its descent to close, shrinking the orange-hued beams of cast light on the floor, she pops her seatbelt but doesn’t move to exit the car. Instead, she stares straight ahead for a moment before letting loose a long sigh.
“You know, I’ve been thinking recently about where your dad and I should retire. After the remodel, I assumed it’d be in this house, this neighborhood, but maybe we really should start looking somewhere else.”
She pauses, perhaps readying her internal optimist for the negativity of her next statement:
“I’ve been thinking we should find somewhere safer, what with these fires.”
I remember feeling slightly taken aback by her doubts. “Safe,” here in the Bay Area, is a given, an expected outcome, something we take for granted. Plus, this was my mother, the eternal nitpicker who never would have chosen to settle somewhere so long as there existed even a remote speck of danger. It was just an odd year, I assured her. The Bay was and would remain perfectly, 100% safe.
In my 19 years of life here, that was my first encounter with the smoke back in 2017. I never expected that, in the coming years, I’d come to see the smoke again and again.
This past weekend invoked a similar mood. My mother and her friends were going on a “gals’ getaway” up in Sonoma — that is, until the first reports of the Kincade fire came just in time. Fortunately they were all safe and sound, my mother was happy to report, but still, their host may have lost both her home and clinical practice to the flames.
While these are all (thankfully) very first-world problems, it brought me back to that strange, orangey afternoon and my mother’s unsettling question: is there really anywhere truly safe? I know, perhaps better than most, that you can live your whole life nestled in the cushy Silicon Valley, where your greatest worry is a late assignment and safety doesn’t need to cross your mind all the time. We walk across the street staring at phone screens and bikes with the arrogance to transcend all stop signs. We live in our heads, our to-dos, our next tasks. We’ve let ourselves become blind.
The fact remains that these annual fires are likely another sign we ignore; whether you believe in climate change or dismiss it as a hoax made up by thieving capitalists, the flames are undeniably real and devastating, the smoke acrid and stinging. It’s far too easy to be moved by the stories (Poor polar bears! Poor Venice!) then turn around, open your phone and forget about it all.
With the smoke’s abrupt return this past Sunday, I felt how I imagine my mother did during our original conversation two years ago — scared and perhaps a bit foolish for letting myself get so swept away by the trivialities and joys of daily life.
I’m no expert on climate change or global warming, but recognizing this fundamental ignorance at least got me thinking seriously about it. Why have these fires become seasonal, annual occurrences? If this continues as it likely will, where will the safest places be?
My aim in writing this is not to scare anyone, but simply to suggest that we take a moment — especially while we’re all inside hiding from the air — and be mindful of the fact that this smoke isn’t just a meaningless inconvenience. It’s both a warning and reminder, a prediction of what’s to come if we continue to gaze passively by.
Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.