The first nine months I lived in this apartment, I had to deal with at least two dozen false fire alarms. The first of these came before I even began teaching in Wisconsin, waking me up in the middle of the night and instantly plunging me into fear that taking the job offer here would wind up being one of the biggest mistakes of my life. By the time that autumn was over, even the loudness and shrillness of this building’s alarms had become blasé to me, and I just trudged outside to wait for the beeping and flashing to stop. In the two years that have passed since that initial period, though, I’ve only had three false fire alarms here, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the end of those alarms coincided with the end of students being allowed to rent apartments in this building; I strongly suspect that I know exactly what kind of smoke was triggering the alarms so often when I first came here.
Yesterday morning, though, the alarms went off shortly after sunrise, after I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep, and I felt like I was experiencing the terror of that first fire alarm all over again. I wrote here recently about how afraid I was of fires because of the drought in southern Wisconsin, but I’d actually checked the fire forecast the night before, and no part of Wisconsin is under elevated fire risk right now. (Northern Minnesota, sadly, is another story.) Still, a fire alarm is a fire alarm, and even though I hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep, I grabbed my keys and smartphone, put on decent clothes, and got out of here. (Okay, I also grabbed my camping chair so I’d have someplace comfortable to sit, but I literally keep that chair right next to my front door, so it wasn’t like I lost any time by snagging it on my way out.)
The alarm didn’t get switched off for fifty minutes, during which time my eyes, and then my throat, started burning. We’d been dealing with air quality issues for days, to the point where they’ve now become part of the weather forecasts, A quick walk around the building let me know that if there were any fires inside, they weren’t all that serious, and after I finally got back into my apartment that morning, one of the first things I did was to look at the current fire and smoke map. Sure enough, all the reporting stations in southwest Wisconsin were at levels equal to, or higher than, anything I’ve seen so far that summer. My eyes didn’t stop burning all day, even after I took a shower, and if my lack of sleep wasn’t enough to ruin my day, the adrenaline low after going through that alarm certainly did the trick.
As I write this the following afternoon, though, the sky is bluer than I’ve seen it for several weeks. The kinds of clouds that I took for granted a year or so ago now seem absolutely picturesque, and the fire and smoke map now shows us completely free of smoke cover. That’s not going to last, though; this is just a temporary lull, and the northern part of Wisconsin is starting to get slammed again. Given what’s happening in Minnesota right now, I’m guessing that we’ll be back to serious air quality issues within a day or two, complete with all the other attendant concerns.
Knowing that worse is to come is what’s getting me, though, and that’s included today, because even though the sky has been relatively clear here all day, I still didn’t sleep that well last night. It’s not like the amount of smoke cover we’re getting here is all that predictable, and as I went to bed after that rough day, I could tell how tense I was because I knew that I might get awoken at any moment yet again for a false fire alarm triggered by the smoke particulates we’re getting from the western wildfires. It’s not like I want the owners of this apartment complex to disable the alarms, because there’s always the danger of a real fire, so this is something I’m probably going to have to put up with for however long this wildfire season lasts. Judging by how things went last year, that could easily be another couple of months, or even longer.
These wildfires would be horrible enough for the devastation they’re wreaking where things are actually burning, but the fact that so many of us east of the wildfires are having our day-to-day lives so seriously disrupted should be pulling a lot more people into action here. Dealing with false fire alarms every ten to fourteen days here was stressful enough a couple of years ago, and now I feel like I might have to start expecting those alarms, and their attacks on my nervous system, on a daily basis every summer. These kinds of disruptions should be an even bigger alarm to all of us, and the longer we wait to take action, the more of our country, and our planet, will continue to burn.