Wildfire smoke from the United States will again affect Nanaimo and areas on central Vancouver Island on Saturday, Sept. 12. (Karl Yu/Nanaimo News Bulletin)

Taylor: Learning to live with smoke

‘Smoke is becoming a new normal’ for Okanagan Valley, columnist says

As I write this column, I rejoice in clear skies and bright sun. But I know the smoke will come back.

With wildfires burning all over B.C. and through the western U.S., smoke can’t help drifting into this valley again.

Smoke hangs like frosted glass between me and the far shore of the lake.

To the north and south, water and sky and hills merge into an opaque curtain.

There are no horizons.

Smoke is becoming a new normal. As extreme weather patterns come tumbling one after another, we can expect more heat domes.

More droughts. More smoke.

I woke the other night realizing that I could smell smoke. That surprised me because I lost my sense of smell a decade ago. I never know how spicy my chilli is because I can’t smell it. Chanel #5 is wasted on me. I can’t even smell the methane in my own flatulence.

But I could smell smoke.

It makes the air outside feel different. Thicker. Heavier. Almost fluid. As if I have to push my way through it, like wading in chest-deep water.

Years ago, I used to have nightmares. I had to lean forward, to struggle for each step against an irresistible flow of what I thought of as invisible molasses.

Smoke changes my colour perceptions. It tints the skies faintly sepia, like an archival tintype. The sun overhead glows through the smoke like an incandescent orange.

I watched the sunset one evening. As it sank into the smoke shrouding the valley, it grew redder and redder.

Until it faded out of sight.

I remembered driving west out of Toronto, watching a similar giant red ball descending towards the horizon ahead of me. I thought, “This will be a spectacular sunset.”

It wasn’t. The sun simply disappeared into the grey pall that cloaked industrial Ontario.

That was when I knew I had to move away.

Only now, the haze has come to me.

Health authorities caution about the negative effects of breathing smoke. Inhaling tiny floating particles of ash can cause lung problems. Delhi and Beijing come to mind.

Cigarette packages bear warnings about the dangers of inhaling tobacco smoke. But how do you post a warning on a whole geographical region? “Breathing smoke from forest fires may be hazardous to your health.”

You can, if you choose, quit smoking cigarettes. You can’t choose to breathe air.

Milton in Paradise Lost, Dante in the Inferno, describe in excruciating detail the all-consuming fires of hell. But they say little that I can recall about smoke from those fires.

Smokeless briquettes, perhaps?

The same with the Bible. Only 38 (or 41, depending on your preferred authority) of the Bible’s 31,000 verses mention smoke at all. Mt. Sinai cloaked in smoke. God leading in a pillar of smoke. Smoke rising from the embers of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Also smoke rising from ritual sacrifices, which were supposedly pleasing to God’s nostrils. Although I suspect the smoke from King Solomon’s sacrifice of 144,000 cows and sheep in one week, to dedicate his new temple, might have stunk up the heavens worse than a neighbour’s barbecue.

Maybe some smoke in my valley isn’t so intolerable after all.

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.


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