In November, we still thought winter would come. The sky was leaden, the tops of southwest Colorado’s mountains edged with snow. We had five cords of wood split and stacked. I was pregnant and looking forward to cozy afternoons by the fire with a pot of soup simmering on the stove.
But November passed without its usual storms. In December, I rode my bike down the same dirt roads I usually skied on. In January, my husband, Jesse, and I bought our first house. After helping us move, our friends sat in the yard in T-shirts and sandals, drinking beer in the sunshine like it was the middle of summer.
The mild weather might have been pleasant, except each brittle sunrise seemed to carry with it the specter of wildfire, of dry rivers and dangerous heat. “The scary thing about drought,” I wrote in my journal that March, “is how nebulous it is. There’s no way of knowing how long it will last; nothing you can do except compulsively check the 10-day forecast, again and again, hoping for rain.”
Still, Jesse and I took advantage of the weather to do a few house projects, and although I’m usually averse to loud noises, the banging of hammers and whirring of saws were soothing. They were the sounds of a home being made. The junipers may have been turning brown and spring winds may have been carrying red dirt to melt our meager snowpack, but the act of building a home felt like creating a bulwark against the drought; like it could somehow shelter us from whatever was to come.
Our daughter, Josephine, was born in April. Two months later, the fire started.
At first, Durango’s 416 Fire seemed insignificant. Three other fires had been sparked in Colorado that spring, and each had grown a few thousand acres and been put out. But this one grew, and grew, consuming the parched forest, flirting with the edges of neighborhoods, jumping streams and drainages. From our house, we watched the plume of purple-gray smoke turn into a looming mushroom cloud and then an all-consuming haze. We monitored websites charting the fire’s growth and the number of homes evacuated while maintaining our improbable optimism. Surely, it wouldn’t reach our home. Surely, we wouldn’t have to leave.
As the evacuation line inched closer to our neighborhood, though, we encountered a danger I hadn’t considered before becoming a mother: smoke pollution. Each night around 10 p.m., a cloud of ash and fine particulates sank into the valley and enveloped our house, and we’d rush to close the windows despite the fact that the indoor temperature still hovered around 85 degrees. We slept less and less. As I kicked off the sheets and pulled Josephine’s tiny, hot body close for late-night feedings, the smoke crept through the cracks and crevices of our 70-year-old home. By morning, it smelled like someone had lit a campfire in the living room.
Josephine, meanwhile, became increasingly fussy and difficult to console. As a first-time mother, I had no idea how much crying was normal, how much was due to the heat, and how much could be attributed to the smoke. The daily air quality warnings issued by the health department advised the very young and the very old to avoid smoke pollution, but they didn’t elaborate on what the repercussions might be if you simply couldn’t do so.
So I did some research and started to get worried. The best proxy for how early exposure to wildfire smoke impacts children’s health seems to be a study on a group of rhesus macaque monkeys who were exposed to smoke from the 2008 California wildfires. Compared to a control group, three-year-old monkeys who’d breathed smoke as infants had reduced lung capacity and pulmonary function, as well as problems with their immune systems. And because babies breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, they may experience more severe coughing, sore throats and respiratory distress.
Josephine wasn’t wheezing, and much of the time she was still a smiling, gurgling, chubby baby. But when the air quality index broke 512 on a scale that usually tops out at 500 and the smoke grew so thick we couldn’t see our neighbor’s house two blocks away, Jesse and I concluded that it was no longer safe for her developing lungs. It was time to leave.
We made our decision on a Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, we’d packed my Subaru with an odd combination of vacation gear and irreplaceable evacuation items: beach chairs, bathing suits and bike helmets alongside photo albums, journals and my grandmother’s jewelry. A box of diapers shoved next to a beloved teapot. Gas in the tank: check. A quick oil change: check. And then we were on our way, skirting national forests that were closed because they were so dry, passing landmarks some 85 miles from the fire that were obscured by smoke. Along with reports that other children fleeing unhealthy conditions were being “sheltered” in abandoned Walmarts at the U.S.-Mexico border, it was enough to make me feel like I was living in some dystopian, climate-addled future. Except it isn’t the future. This is now.
Still, Jesse and I are fortunate. By sundown, we’d reached Flagstaff, Ariz., where we saw a clear night sky for the first time in weeks. We rolled down the windows. In her carseat, her face tilted toward the cool breeze, Josephine slept peacefully.
Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News. She writes from Durango, Colorado.