Last week, as smoke from the Camp Fire pooled over San Francisco, the air was hazy and smelled like burnt plastic and wood smoke. A citywide alert system sent out e-mails and text messages cautioning sensitive groups––children, the elderly, and those with heart or lung diseases––to “avoid strenuous outdoor activities,” but outside it felt like business as usual. A small number of residents walked the streets in respirators, looking like oversized insects or doomsday preppers. In the Mission, I passed a cluster of teen-agers in Catholic-school uniforms, some of whom had on dust masks, and was reminded of New York after September 11th. I was fourteen, and went to school five blocks from the pile. I remember the smell of the air when we returned to classes, and the small stash of masks I carried, unused and crumpled, at the bottom of my backpack.
As the air quality worsened this week, restaurants stopped seating diners at sidewalk tables; playgrounds emptied out. On Thursday, the air-quality index shifted from red to purple—“unhealthy” to “very unhealthy.” The air felt thick, and stung. Friends complained of headaches, sore lungs, and itchy eyes, and then apologized for complaining. Masks became ubiquitous: on skateboarders, Uber drivers, couriers, and tech workers in line for shuttles to the campuses of Google, Apple, and Facebook. Downtown, hospitality workers, also in masks, marched in a picket line outside the Marriott Marquis. (Some carried signs that said “Green Choice Hurts Us,” in protest of a points program, touted as an environmental initiative, that encourages guests to forgo housekeeping services.) At rush hour, mall flocks of bicycle commuters in white particle masks moved swiftly up and down Market Street, downtown’s main artery.
That morning, I walked to the top of Bernal Heights Hill, which ordinarily offers a panorama of the Bay Area. It looked like someone had taken a dirty eraser to the landscape. Downtown was a haze. The East Bay had vanished. To the south, San Bruno Mountain was hidden by sepia dust. A woman jogged slowly around the base of the hill, a bandanna wrapped over her mouth. That evening, Northern California was ranked as having the worst air quality in the world, with an Air Quality Index surpassing three hundred—maroon, or “hazardous.”
Bay Area public schools are closed today. San Francisco’s famous, open-sided cable cars have been removed from service. Some offices have given employees a “smoke day” off from work. Grassroots efforts have popped up across the city: a new-age apothecary in the Mission has been making an herbal “lung syrup” for shoppers, and volunteers are handing out masks to the homeless. Given the scope of the tragedy in Butte County, it can be easy to overlook the fact that those on the outskirts of the wildfire are experiencing a second environmental crisis. Watching a woman in a respirator deliberate over bottled salad dressing at a Safeway, I wondered when these dramatic environmental shifts will start to feel mundane. In a way, they already have.