Map: Wildfire near Portland Oregon

Nine days ago my neighbors and I stood out on the sidewalk peering up at the sun gone an eerie red. A massive dark ominous cloud devoid of rain seethed an angry yellowish red just to our south. We felt like extras in a Poltergeist movie, and it was descending on us fast.

Within a day the air thickened and became so unbreathable we had to duct tape around our doors to keep the acrid smell from leeching in. The small mountain across the highway out front slowly disappeared into a reddish-gray haze, then all color disappeared as the cloud of smoke shrouded the sun completely.

We were already wearing masks in stores due to the pandemic. Now we had to wear them to put out the trash or to talk with our neighbors, the air was burning our lungs. One of us commented, “all we need now is a volcano erupting”. I nodded my head at this. The world seemed an unfriendly place to live all of a sudden.

Living with a view of purgatory was only the beginning, as local news tallied homes burning and lost just to our south, barely a dozen miles away. Soon our cell phones all bleeped at once: we were on Evacuation Alert, Level 1 (“Get ready”). Online, we could see the Level Two evacuation area (“Get set”) was perhaps ten blocks away, and Level Three (“Go!”) barely a block behind that.

Already suffering through a pandemic, our trust with strangers at a premium, where people can no longer visibly smile at each other, jobs are gone, or we’ve dropped out of the workforce for being in a sensitive health demographic; and now this: We must choose what we can’t afford to leave behind. And hurry.

As a minimalist, I’ve grown less dependent on physical things as much as possible. But without an income for several months, the things we have suddenly become more valuable since they cannot easily be replaced. A bed, a computer, a set of plates, clothes. Suddenly we are asked to prioritize what will fit in a compact car before we drive from the encroaching flames. And if you have a family, or a couple of fur-children like I do, most of that space will probably be taken up by them.

Staring at the alert on my phone, I suddenly felt what it must be like for people living with war, or refugees running from their own country. Their homes gone or occupied. Everything they owned lost, except for what is on their backs. The smoke thick between my place and my neighbor’s only helped to paint this picture. Life seemed so tenuous and frail for that moment. I knew I was only getting a tiny glimpse of such an awful life. I felt almost thankful later to be able to appreciate their plight, if only a little.

Last night thunder and lightning hammered and flashed across the sky like a war approaching. But instead of a barrage of shells, a roaring rain pounded down. It was three in the morning and I was watching it from the living room window, tempted to run out there and cheer it on. I imagined tired smoke jumpers doing just that.

Later that morning, as a normal-colored sun lit the floor, I opened my window for the first time in nine days and let fresh air pour in, thankful that the world was feeling merciful this time.

Although the feeling of life’s frailty has stuck with me, I have to admit we had it easy. We get to sleep in our own beds in our own homes, unlike many to our south who have lost theirs and whatever they had to leave behind. I am sad for them–for anyone in the world who has lost a home. That has to suck so badly.

It’s a funny time, when gratefulness meets guilt, to have survived unscathed.

Be safe out there. I wish you all the best.

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