The Smell of Campfire

California is on fire. Again. Or still. More. In August, a series of fires spread over six counties—Colusa, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo—merging to form the LNU Lightning Complex fire. It burned trees, grass, vineyards, all manner of brush (including poison oak), vehicles, homes and businesses. Winds picked up the smoke, swirled it around the Bay Area like Hershey’s syrup in milk, before carrying it across Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, over Chicago and on into the Rust Belt.

I know this because I saw the social media posts of friends strewn from Laramie to Cleveland. I didn’t need to read the papers.

At this point it is 98 percent contained, but that’s of little succor because the Glass fire is burning it’s way through Napa and Sonoma Counties.

That smell of campfire will never be the same for me. It no longer evokes trips into the country with the Boy Scouts. Instead, it conjures memories of carrying computers and art to my car and prompts a visceral tightening of my abdomen.

For many of us, the bike is our primary response to stress. Bad day at work? Fight with spouse? Car broke down? We all go for a ride at our earliest opportunity.

That’s not sunset light; I shot this at 2:30 pm after I finished loading my car.

There’s little that can stress me like having to evacuate my home, to which I’ve just returned after two days displaced because the Glass fire managed to jump Highway 12 and enter Trione-Annadel State Park. Ash swirled in the air like a snow flurry.

Since August, I’ve had to watch the wind direction and local air quality before going for any ride. Here’s the thing: While that smoke we inhale may smell of a weekend with friends, the whiff of burned wood is masking something a good deal more sinister.

Once a wildfire begins burning more than trees and brush and begins torching homes, stores, wineries, hotels and more, that smoke carries the remnants of plastics, fiberglass insulation, rubber from tires, the heavy metals in electronics and plenty more. The big culprit here are the VOCs, that is volatile organic compounds. Synthetic rubber and many plastics release hydrogen cyanide and other chemicals that can cause permanent lung damage as well as other long-term health issues, up to and including cancer.

What you see represents three hours of falling ash on a white car.

It is because of that I check Purple Air and Windfinder any time I want to go for a ride. I say any time I want to go for a ride rather than before a ride because the combination of air quality and wind conditions have nixed most of my rides for the last week, and at least a third of my rides since August.

When we ride, our respiration rate can easily reach seven times our resting respiration rate. If you’ve ever gotten back from a ride and your lungs burned or you had a dry cough for a while, you inhaled stuff you shouldn’t inhale.

Purple Air reports the EPA air quality for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5). What I’ve found for myself is that if I take a ride when the AQI (air quality index) is higher than 100, my lungs don’t feel great at the end of the ride. I’m told I’m a bit more sensitive than most; in this regard I don’t mind being a little yellow bird in a hole in the ground. If I begin to see the eponymous purple dots on the map, I try not to even go outside.

The nerd in me (a substantial portion of my overall makeup) relishes studying these maps to see the way the land masses focus and direct the wind. On one side of a ridge the air can be gray with smoke, while on the other one can enjoy the scent of Redwood forest and bask in blue sky.

The landscape in the photo that leads this post is saturated with what looks like haze. It’s not; it’s smoke. There in the clearing I could detect a slight whiff of campfire, but back in the forest and dropping down the other side of the ridge, the air was saturated with the fragrance of forest. I made sure to steer away from trails where I could smell anything burnt.

I’m going to suggest that if your sky is marred by smoke or haze that originated here, take a recovery day.

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