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…