The climate emergency came to our doorstep, in Denver, in the form of smoke from wildfires. During a pandemic, a time when the only safe place was home, it drove us out of our house, and after we left, the smoke followed us. We had always thought of the American West as a place of freedom and vastness. Now it's teaching us another lesson: There's nowhere to outrun all the ways that humans are rendering this planet uninhabitable.
In mid-August, we started coughing. Our coughs woke us in the night, interrupted our Zoom calls. My partner's asthma made whatever we had worse: He spat up clear runny liquid, sometimes coughing so hard that he had to sit down. We stopped going outside except to walk the dog. We both got tested for COVID-19; the results came back negative. I got better; he got worse. His voice changed, roughened. We feared he had bronchitis.
The largest wildfire in Colorado's history had been burning for almost two weeks when we realized smoke was the culprit. It sounds obvious now, but in those days, the smoke was barely visible in Denver — until suddenly, it was very visible. One day, the haze thickened to the point that we could no longer see the mountains circling the city. The smells of barbecue, or camp smoke, started greeting us at all hours of the day and night. Back then, this was still unusual, and, we believed, escapable.
For a week, with new fires starting every day, we debated what to do. We could leave: We were both working from home, and home could be anywhere. The housing market in Denver was still hot; we could rent out our house. On the other hand, there was COVID, and all public health guidance cautioned us to "stay home, and stay safe." Any home that wasn't ours appeared risky, potentially infected. And the fires and their resulting smoke had encompassed so much of our region that few places remained untouched, with good air.
We decided on the Oregon coast, one of the few areas that had seen no fires this summer, and far enough north that the smoke from California hadn't found its way there. We rented out our house for three months, put our furniture in storage, packed the car. I don't remember the two-day drive. The haze of exhaustion — from the move, from the days of going back and forth on what to do, where to go, from the coughing, undeterred by medication — coated my mind like sludge.
We got to our hotel in Lincoln City, Ore., on Aug. 30. Finally, we could see the sky again, the cliffs in the distance. The coast is always beautiful in the summer, but this time it seemed to glow, the ocean more luminously blue, its forests more green and life-giving. On hikes, we kept inhaling deeply, filling our lungs. My partner's coughing subsided, then mostly disappeared. His voice returned to normal. I was always on the precipice of tears: I missed our home, but also I was so grateful that we could leave it. I was grateful that we could come to this place of abundance, of lush nature and easy breathing.
On Sept. 6, exactly a week after we arrived, the winds picked up. The next day, we woke to an orange sky and no power. In the lobby now lit only by candles, staff told us there was a fire five miles away in Otis. The winds had taken down the power lines, too, and blocked most of the surrounding roads.
Already, I could feel the now-familiar burning in the back of my throat from smoke. My partner started coughing again and using his inhaler. I watched him, afraid and in disbelief that we had driven 1,300 miles just to find ourselves ensnared in the same danger.
Once again, the debate: to stay or go? Wait it out or flee while we still could, before more roads were closed? And if we left, where to go? California was still burning. From what we could tell with the limited reception on our phones, fires had broken out across Oregon and Washington, caused by high winds and an unusually hot and dry summer. Towns around us were being evacuated. But only later would we learn the scale of the devastation: More than 800,000 acres were burning in Oregon and 500,000 in Washington.
Ultimately, our choice was made for us by the demands of work: We couldn't work without power. We packed our car under a sky like hellfire and started driving north, on the only highway that was still open. Along the way, when I had a signal, I looked up fire and air quality maps, COVID-19 maps, maps of available hotels. When I didn't have a signal, I stared out the window, at the smoke that came and went, at the Siuslaw National Forest where we had hiked all week, its trees now blackened, branches scattering the road. I thought of the towering 200-year-old Sitka spruces, and how, surrounded by them, I had felt safe. They seemed to be testaments to the idea that life goes on even when our lives are in crisis. I wondered if they would survive this blaze, or the one after that.
Now we're in a hotel in Olympia, Wash. Yesterday, Washington's Department of Ecology rated the air quality as "moderate." Today, it is "unhealthy for sensitive groups." Tomorrow, it is forecast to become "unhealthy for all." Beyond that, no one seems to know what will happen, not even locals. A friend in Seattle told me: "I don't know what to do either. Fires in western Washington are not really a thing. But I guess they are now."
In our hotel room, my partner works at a desk, and I type on the bed. Most times, I can hear the baby two doors down crying. Every time someone walks by our door, our dog growls. Our bags are on the floor, clothing spilling out of them. We haven't unpacked because we don't know where we'll be next week. I know we're lucky: If we have to leave — if my partner starts coughing again, or if the power goes out here — we can.
Maybe these questions — do we leave and risk our health, or stay and risk our health? — are ones that we will get used to asking every summer. Before we left home, we had grown used to changing the air filters often and stocking up on cough suppressants. Now, we're better at packing our car, choosing what is essential: clothes for all weather, disinfecting wipes, earplugs.
We are getting better at fleeing. I'm just not sure, in a few years, which places will be left to flee to.
Vasudevan is an economist and writer. This piece was written for The Washington Post.