More than 10,000 bolts of lightning struck the interior of Northern California this past August, and in the days that followed, blazes ignited across the state and stifled the air. A week or so later, I flew home to San Francisco for the first time since the novel coronavirus took over the world. As we circled SFO, I breathed in what smelled like campfire through my N95 mask, and over the loudspeaker the pilot told us not to panic.
This is not the first time I have flown over fire: In 2018, the Camp Fire burned across Butte County, and through the airplane window I could see the exact place where wispy clouds turned into heavy, viscous smoke, obscuring the ocean and hiding the city. Over that Thanksgiving weekend, San Francisco’s streets were emptied of people. Those who did venture out wore respirators, and there was a run on supplies at local hardware stores. The days glowed a doomsday yellow.
Much has changed since then; much has not. Everyone is masked now to protect against a virus that swamps supermarkets and wafts through restaurants. It is a strange world in which we must own multiple kinds of masks. It was only this year that I learned to wash my hands correctly, and now I know that while a respirator may save my lungs from fire, it could also spread Covid-19 to my neighbors. Evidently, the equipment we have is only so useful.
After the Camp Fire in 2018, my parents did not purchase an air purifier. Nor did my friends, or my friends’ parents, or anyone I know, for that matter. I think we were all just so relieved to breathe again.
In comparison with other years, the 2019 fire season was relatively mild (though tell that to the residents of Sonoma, where the Kincade Fire burned 77,758 acres). Still, California made it through once again. I remain confident in San Francisco’s innate fortifications, bound as it is by three sides of water. For a fire to jump the mouth of the Golden Gate would be an extraordinary feat, and yet it no longer seems entirely unbelievable. Nor does it seem so unlikely that we will be breathing toxic air again this time next year.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and I had better have an air purifier before the next fire season. Since I no longer live in San Francisco, my concerns were for my family. The house I grew up in is old and somewhat porous, and outdoor pollutants can easily seep through the windows. None of us had noticed the effects of the smoke while indoors, but that doesn’t mean the air was clean. In this year of no control, I can order an air purifier to help keep them healthy.
Only a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) device can scrub the air of 99 percent of its toxic particles. These are the machines that are found in operating theaters, research laboratories, and nuclear power stations. If a HEPA filter was good enough for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, then it was good enough for my parents’ house.
Despite their seeming ubiquity, however, it was quickly apparent that, to the uninitiated, the world of HEPA filtration devices is vast and ugly. From recommendations in the New York Times I compiled a list of options, but Wired’s researchers came to a different conclusion, and the mothers of Mumsnet had their own forum for debating pros and cons and budget options. Across the board, most models look like industrial fans, and the few that could be loosely deemed attractive are expensive.
But even if I had wanted to spend $600 on something super sleek, I had long missed the window. By the time I was ready to click “buy,” the only products left were shipping three, maybe four weeks down the road. Despite humankind’s ability to dominate delivery times, it seems Mother Nature does always win.
When I started researching air purifiers, there had already been weeks of unhealthy air. I know this because the news reported it, and because I have an air quality monitoring app. Me, who hates phone apps, whose last app download was more than eight months ago, here I am checking the Air Quality Index every morning and texting my friends and family about the orange reading.
In San Francisco, at the intersection of Portola Drive and Clipper Street, where Mount Olympus dips into Twin Peaks, the fog normally breaks into a blue sky. We crossed this hill a lot when I was growing up, and at the moment when the whole city would spill out before us like diamonds, my dad would glance back in the rearview mirror and say, “You kids are the luckiest.” And we were: I grew up with balmy weather and air that smelled like the Pacific, and for the most part it still is like that, though the days that aren’t are growing in number. After a few weeks of clean skies, my parents plugged in their purifier as they faced the October fires.
I worry about their lungs and am glad they have a machine that can vacuum up pollutants and maybe some virus particles, too. In truth, they probably would benefit from a second device, but for now they have one, which is more than most people. While $219 is a small amount to pay for clean air, it is a high price if you can’t afford food or rent or medical bills. It is a high price if the water in your city is already toxic, or landfill runoff leaches into your garden. It is a high price that will probably only get higher. I bought the air purifier to buy my family time, time we do not have, time that politicians keep burning away. Some of us are privileged enough to be able to buy the stuff to protect against the bad air, or dirty water, or vicious storms; most are not as lucky.
I have to say, I hate this stuff. It takes up space and adds to the waste cycle. I know that I am speaking from a fortunate position, but it feels like buying platitudes instead of looking at this crisis and saying, “Okay, we will give up all these things to have fresh air and clean water and trees that stretch on forever.” Why should we think we are entitled to the world, to a new car every year, or meat at every meal, or air conditioning the second the temperature begins to ascend? And to this, we now can add the ability to buy air purifiers, respirators, and, I am sure, a whole range of other products that have yet to be released. Nowhere does the divide between rich and poor seem starker than when planning for an uncertain and hazardous future.
On September 9, the day that never dawned, I discovered that climate change is the color of a blacked-out sun. That morning I had a dentist appointment, and driving through the hills of San Francisco was the closest I have ever come to living in a video game. I made my way gingerly through the city as everyone else also put-putted along with their brights flashing in the dark. Dogs barked loudly in search of the absent sun. A steady stream of ash fell on the cars and frosted the windowpanes. The sky was burning and it never got light.
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.