White Skies

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Fire and Smoke Map (airnow.gov)

I didn’t require my students in my online classes last year to turn their video cameras on, not only because I don’t have a webcam (I left my old one behind in Colorado) and didn’t want to force students to do something I wasn’t doing myself, but because I’m a firm believer in students’ rights to privacy, especially in their own homes. Some of my students may have just logged into Zoom and gone off to another room to play video games during class time, some may have fallen asleep, and some may have been partaking in certain substances. In the end, that wasn’t my concern, and as we get closer to the start of the fall semester here, and my campus is still scheduled to return to in-person classes (as of this moment), I’m already starting to think about how the experience of the pandemic will affecting things like attendance policies in my future classes, whether those classes are held on Zoom or in the flesh.

Getting a visible reaction from my students who did choose to turn on their webcams for class last year was rare — their enthusiasm showed in the work they turned in to me, but the multitude of challenges we were facing often made it difficult to be as engaged during the minute-by-minute activities of our classes as would normally be the case — but it happened sometimes. One of the biggest reactions I can remember from this past year was during the first round of wildfires in the western US that created enough smoke to travel across the country. Although some of my students had seen the horrific pictures coming from San Francisco of the otherworldly orange skies created by the density of smoke there, many of them didn’t recognize that the whiteness in the skies outside of our windows at that time weren’t clouds, but the smoke travelling from west to east across the country. It’s likely that had we not been in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, this would have captivated my classes for weeks, but between the numerous changes to our lives that we were still getting used to, and other factors like the ongoing election, we really didn’t return to the wildfire smoke that much for the rest of the semester. I can’t be sure that I even mentioned it once in all of my spring semester classes that started this past January.

I was already worried about the weather here because of the capacity for drought and its related fire hazards, as I mentioned on this blog last week. I’d seen enough news stories about wildfires in the western US and Canada to know that things were getting worse there yet again, but as this past week went on, it became harder to ignore that the sky outside my bedroom window was taking on a greyish whiteness that I remembered talking about with my fall semester students. Unlike last year, though, I started checking maps for current and anticipated smoke coverage, in part because as the skies here started getting worse, I began having problems with my eyes again. Even staying cooped up here in my apartment as much as possible over the past few days (as if I needed yet another reason to do that), I’m still having to use a lot of eye drops just to let me see well enough to perform normal activities, and that doesn’t even get into the distracting itchiness I’m having to contend with. My ability to get things done last week definitely suffered as a result of the air quality here, and it doesn’t look like that will get better here any time soon. (Things got a little better over the weekend, but now today we’re currently under the darkest grey on the airnow.gov map, the sky outside is completely white despite it being “sunny,” and I’m finding it hard to do much of anything yet again.)

The lack of students to teach at the present moment is influencing my perceptions right now, of course, but this round of coast-to-coast wildfire smoke doesn’t seem to be generating as much interest in popular media as the first one. Once the novelty of the absurdly high temperatures in Canada a few weeks ago wore off (everyone loved reporting on the temperature in Lytton, but not so many people wanted to talk about how most of the town burned up shortly thereafter), it felt like a lot of the news outlets out there just did one report on the predictions for an even more dire wildfire season than last year, and then went on to talking about pretty much anything else, even as skies from California to New York became choked with smoke.

I hate to think that maybe many Americans have already become used to not just the smoke, but the horrific destruction happening all across the western states right now. Recent developments in the pandemic should concern us all, obviously, but the idea that this kind of environmental destruction is just a “new normal” that we all need to get used to is alarming. Beyond the current environmental ravages and the long-term impacts those will have on the planet, the immediate tragedies being caused by all these wildfires should be the kind of thing that prompts strong and immediate action in all spheres of our culture. Instead, it feels like these stories are already destined to being buried on news sites below stories about eliminations in whatever the hot “reality television” show is right now.

Part of me had already been planning to mask up in public for the rest of my life here, even if we somehow manage to get COVID-19 under total control; it’s just safer for me, and a lot more convenient as well. If I’m going to be expected to deal with so much smoke in the air every summer, though, then I may need to get goggles for my eyes here too, and these concerns aren’t even a drop in the bucket compared to those of people who are losing their homes and loved ones to all these wildfires. I want to think that public attention will somehow shift to these tragedies and lead to an unignorable mass movement to prevent these kinds of mass wildfires from happening again, but if that movement hasn’t arisen by now, it’s hard to believe that it ever will. Maybe the world burning is already our new normal.

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