My Search for Clean Air in a World Blowing Smoke | California on Fire

I don’t usually have an emotional attachment to the appliances in my home. In general I don’t think much about the refrigerator, toilet, or my kitchen table. Unless they break or smell bad. Then I have some emotions, but not good ones.

But I just got an air purifier and I’m definitely emotionally attached.

This isn’t a post about the air purifier though. I figured you’d want to know ahead of time that this is not a post hailing the low-intelligence robot performing air quality CPR in my living room. I’m sorry if you were here for that.

In all seriousness, wildfires and a medical crisis brought a community of people to this impoverished person’s nostrils. My people showed up and breathed life back into me. Literally.

Kind of.

The events that led to this magic air purifying machine in my apartment were not pleasant.

When the Carr Fire erupted outside Redding, California on July 23rd, 2018, it doubled in size for several days and continued to grow, eventually burning over 150,000 acres (8/7/18).

Then the Ranch Fire (Mendocino Complex Fire) erupted on July 27th and eventually grew to over 240,000 acres (8/7/18). These two mega-fires, plus the Ferguson Fire in Yosemite National Park (erupted July 13: 94,000+ acres), make up the largest acreage burned of the nearly two dozen wildfires actively burning in the state; displacing people and wildlife, ruining lives and land, causing fatalities, and sending smoke into neighboring states.

A heavy layer of smoke and ash now covers my city of Sacramento, ruining the air quality and painting the skies an eerie flat grey. The smell of smoke is constant and the view is apocalyptic as if the fog is closing us off from the rest of the world. Some days there is visible ash rain. And there is no end in sight.

The smoky view of Capital Avenue with the Tower Bridge in the background. Sacramento, CA. Image courtesy Denice Ristau.

The 2018 California Wildfires will almost certainly change our atmosphere and climate, meanwhile climate change has made wildfires such as these more common and more severe. It’s a vicious cycle.

So I don’t want to appear as if I’m thankful the 2018 California Wildfires are happening, but I do want to say that I’m grateful for the clarity they have caused in my life. Pun intended.

Now, as I sit in my living room with a loud wall-A/C unit roaring away and an air purifier filtering what came in from the smoky world outside, my nostrils overwhelmed with the sudden fullness of clean air after weeks of toxic small-particle inhalation, my heart is overwhelmed by the people who showed up to save my respiratory system, bank account, and possibly my life.

I’ve said for a while now that the grieving process never ends when you have a chronic disease. It’s more than a grieving process. It’s more like a lifelong series of miniature traumatic events.

Think about it this way, when someone dies, the community often comes together to send a conveyor belt of casseroles through your freezer.

And the grieving eventually subsides. Life takes a new course and the casseroles go away. People move forward with their lives, holding the person who died in memory. They don’t need the casseroles anymore; the freezer fills with their own cooking again.

But then there are natural disasters like tsunamis and wildfires. Afterwards (or during), funding and donations pour in along with people willing and able to move rubble (with some frustrating exceptions, like Puerto Rico) and provide other tangible support. And, much like after funerals, the “casseroles” eventually disappear: the donations stop and the helper people go back to their own lives.

But natural disasters don’t fade into the background again so easily.

When the donations and the people disappear, hundreds or thousands of people can be left behind in their grief and complete ruin. They’re also left without homes, jobs, and possibly even family. And sometimes, after people begin to rebuild, the rain comes and causes deadly mudslides. The side effects of a natural disaster linger for years or decades.

Chronic diseases are more like natural disasters. We grieve the loss of our bodies while we’re living inside them. We’re constantly enduring the various side effects and symptoms our diseases present for the rest of our lives. When we’re diagnosed sometimes people help for a little while. But when we don’t get better, a lot of times that help disappears.

But we really need casseroles for the rest of our lives.

Or, in this case, an air purifier.

In case you haven’t read my bio, I’m disabled. I live with a systemic inflammatory joint disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. My lungs and ribs are inflamed, so I have a hard time breathing even when the air is clean. I live on a fixed income (SSDI), which means I’m severely impoverished.

When the recent wildfires began I almost immediately smelled the smoke, nearly a week before anyone else in Sacramento began smelling it. I developed rattling lungs and a cough that suddenly worsened one evening to the point that I was concerned I would need emergency medical care.

It was a Sunday night at 9:00 PM and I realized I had to find cleaner skies or go to the hospital. I made the decision to leave.

When I announced on Facebook that I needed to leave I didn’t have a plan. I wasn’t able to think well with the smoke, I just knew I needed to leave. And yet, I second-guessed myself. My inner critic kept saying,

“The people near these fires who actually face the possibility of evacuation orders have it worse. They might lose their house. And you’re worried about being able to breathe? Come on!”

But at the same time, there was a slightly stronger voice saying,

“Charis, snap out of it! You’re coughing uncontrollably and you haven’t been able to eat a full meal in days. Your stomach is cramping and you’ll end up in the ER if you don’t leave Sacramento right now. You can’t take another night of sleeping with a N95 filter over your nose and still waking up unable to breathe. Get the hell out!”

Even with these voices in my head I didn’t want people to think I was trying to take attention away from the people who “really need the help. I didn’t deserve to be called an evacuee. It was my fault I hadn’t done enough to smoke-proof my horribly drafty rented apartment. And then there were my cats, who I couldn’t take with me, who were breathing the same air I was. I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to be a better cat-parent.

My amazing friend, Denice, loaned me her car late that night. I booked a hotel room an hour away and went there, hoping the skies would be clear enough that my lungs could take a break. I couldn’t afford more than one night away but I prayed one night would tide me over for a few days.

Before driving home the next morning I decided to ask my Facebook network for help. I wrote:

“If someone is willing to help me stay in Sacramento tonight with the smoke, an online gift card to a place like Target or Home Depot or some other store where I might find an air purifier machine or whatever they’re called, that would be a big help. I hope. Hopefully having an air purifying machine would prevent me from having to make an escape in the coming days or weeks to stay in another hotel.”

I didn’t know a thing about air purifiers when I posted that. I thought they were a fairly generic gadget that cost $75 (of course I was going to do my research first). But I was so wrong. I would soon learn the good ones start around $200 and the best ones are even more.

Hazy sacramento
View of Sacramento from the highway on 8/6/18. The PBR truck was not planned, I promise. Image is my own.

By the time I got back to Sacramento a couple people had responded to my Facebook post.

Over the next hour multiple people reached out offering money and help. A friend from college sent me money to cover my hotel stay the night before. Another friend in North Carolina researched what kind of air purifiers were the highest-rated and most efficient (she eventually found the one I bought and told me which store had it in stock). A church friend called and offered to go buy me one and said, “Just let me know which one you want.”

I heard from so many people wanting to help in such a short time that I could barely make it through the call without crying. So, in chronic disease advocate fashion, this is the video I made immediately after the phone call:

Later, on my way with my church friend to get the air purifier I thought I’d found, another friend sent me a message on Facebook that said, “I can put up to $400 toward your air purifier, just let me know when you find one…”

I was absolutely overwhelmed by all the people who wanted to help me. I couldn’t keep up with the responses from people who wanted to help any way they could. In the end I was able to buy a really great air purifier built to filter air for my entire apartment, with some money left over to go towards utility and maintenance costs.

This experience has made me think a lot about what it means to be grateful.

I live in a world where marginalized people are often told to be grateful for what we have and to not ask for much because “someone always has it worse than you.” We’re often told, whether outright or subconsciously, to suck it up and find something to be grateful about all on our own, because we’re bringing people down.

“Quit bringing us all down with your sad life, find something to be positive about. We don’t want to hear what’s wrong with you.”

“Why are you always complaining? You’re bringing yourself down. Cheer up, mate!”

“Dude, why can’t you just be grateful you’re alive?”

Positive thinking is something I like, but I’m also a realist, so I try to be positive when there’s something to be positive about. I don’t like to gloss over what I’m really going through – that often leads to internalized oppression. This doesn’t mean I don’t have hope or optimism. It just means I look at what I’m experiencing and see it for what it is. And, more often than not, it’s pretty crappy.

Many people who are poor and disabled lack access to affordable, adequate housing, healthcare, food, community support, living wages, public and private access, and understanding. We face lifelong stigma and are objects of inspiration porn, pity, scorn, and objectification. It can be difficult to consider the lilies when the decisions we’re forced to make daily are whether to pay rent or buy our medically necessary prescriptions. I’ve also personally experienced significant amounts of trauma and loss.

And I’ve been trained my whole life to not ask for things, to not be needy, and to figure out a way to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I was taught how to be stubbornly independent to a fault. I was proud of these qualities until I became disabled and impoverished. Until I lost all the bootstraps I used to use to pull myself up. Until I realized I needed to ask for things if I wanted to survive.

But I still feel a lot of shame and guilt asking for help, even with friends and community members constantly offering help in whatever way I need it.

This experience woke me up and shone light on the obvious. When you have something to be grateful about, be grateful for it. And if you don’t, don’t make something up to make other people grateful that you’re pretending to be grateful.

Don’t “pretend-grateful” for other people’s comfort.

I now have more clarity on what it means to be grateful in a world where being grateful is a big deal.

That’s why I am grateful for this clean air in my living room. Not just for the air itself, but for the air that was purchased for me by my community who saw that I was struggling to breathe and knew they could do something about it.

This is a Juno-approved air purifier. Image is my own.

I’m grateful for this 18.3 pound, 20.5x13x13 inch box in my living room sucking in bad air and blowing good air in a world blowing smoke.

Not pretend-grateful. Not faux-grateful. Just grateful.

I don’t recommend going through what I went through to get an air purifier, but I do recommend finding, building, and being part of a community that will help give you air when you’re struggling to survive.

This post is not an attempt to market a product. Many friends have asked what air purifier I got, so I’m linking to it here: Blueair Blue Pure 211+ Air Purifier

If you found this post useful in some way, please consider supporting my writing with a $3 tip at Your support will help me keep the robot air quality CPR machine breathing and make me smile.

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