It’s raining in Fairbanks today. Maybe some of the rain can help put out a few of the 200 forest fires in Alaska right now. It’s the first time since Monday that the skies don’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You likely have no idea just how pervasive the smoke is. When I blow my nose, I smell smoke in my mucus even though I haven’t been outside for days.
We had well-below average snowfall in most of Alaska this past year, and the lack of meltoff already increased the threat of forest fires this summer, even before summer began. So it’s not entirely unexpected — though, as this is my first summer in Alaska, and I’ve never lived where forest fires were the norm, it’s a thoroughly unsettling experience. I look out my window and it appears, as my university’s official Facebook account put it, “like Mordor.”
What disturbs me about the fires is that most of them were set by people, not by lightning strikes or what have you. This in spite of an state order not to light fires.
And I wonder what would possess people to start the fires to begin with. We’re under orders, but the orders are difficult to enforce, particularly in a state so sparsely populated. So it falls to each person to be accountable to themselves and to be responsible. And hundreds have failed to do so.
Perhaps it’s Alaska’s characteristic culture, the individualistic frontier spirit, that compels people to flout the law so. But I’m not willing to write it off to the culture, particularly when I see this mindset playing out all over the world. It’s disturbing when a person puts their self-interest so far ahead of everyone else’s. It gives rise to oppression and tyranny, when the needs of the few holds sway over the needs of the many.
As we edge closer to the precipice of major climate disruption and the effects of mass extinction, those who grasp power, who selfishly put their own interests over the needs of our entire species — such people hold the keys to the extinction of our own species.
To preserve one’s own species is one of the primal drives of nature. Can we be such fools as to bring about our own demise?
Whenever the temperature dips below -20 F (-29 C) in Fairbanks, the city gets smothered in a blanket of smog. Part of this is our weird topography — a flat river valley bound on two sides by mountain ranges — which creates what is known as a temperature inversion. Warm air gets trapped beneath denser, cooler air and can’t rise. Thus, all the smoke from the wood-stoves and all the auto exhaust intermingles with the fog that visits us in winter. At its best, the fog creates hoarfrost on the trees (and we have lots of trees,) such that it looks like you’re living inside a Christmas card. But at its worst, it creates an awful smog that drives me to wearing an allergy mask during the dead of winter. The locals euphemize the phenomenon as “ice fog,” and by all accounts they seem to be inured to its effects. The smog is so thick that I assumed it was the sole contributor to the annual average for the air pollution of the city.
Yesterday was the longest day of the year (though really we haven’t seen true darkness since late April, thanks to our extra-long dawns and dusks,) and Fairbanks celebrated its Midnight Sun Festival, the largest outdoor event in the state. Our summer-collegiate baseball team, the Alaska Goldpanners, played their annual Midnight Sun Game, considered amongst the unique and original events in sports. It was a glorious first day of summer.
This morning, though, I smelt something odd. At first I thought the motor was burning out on my desk fan. Great, I thought, I have to replace it, but good thing I’m headed to the store. On my way out the building, the same burning smell permeated the building, and I half-wondered if the building was on fire.
Then I set foot outside and realized that this is what forest-fire season looks like in Fairbanks.
There are over 100 forest fires in Alaska at present. The closest is near the town of Nenana, an hour’s drive west of here. I had assumed Fairbanks was safe from the effects of the fires, as long as they kept their distance. But, like I said, Fairbanks is in a river valley bound by mountains, and Nenana is to the west. Which means that all the smoke of the fires is channeled directly to the city.
Visibility is almost as low as it is during the worst of the winter smog, and my breath sears my lungs. It looks like it’s time to break out my allergy mask once again.
And yet, I do enjoy living here.
Why? First off, I lucked into a great program for my degree, where my colleagues have become my friends and my professors have become my lifelong mentors. We have a community here, and that’s what I most wanted out of graduate school. Fairbanks is also a nice place to live, smog aside. The people are warm and friendly and sociable. We have unique cultural opportunities, like the World Ice Art Championships, and the city attracts people from all over the world. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to prefer living in small towns over big cities. Not that Fairbanks is that small — about 80,000, depending on how you count it — but, compared to some of the places I’ve lived, it’s small, or, I suppose, just right.
The smog still sucks. But one thing I have learnt in life is that there is no perfect place. No matter where you live, there will be things you like and things you don’t like. It’s a matter of what compromises you are willing to make.
And, for a couple more years, wearing an allergy mask on occasion is a suitable compromise.
So nearly a whole month has blown by since my last post. Forgive me; I’ve been understandably busy, moving 2,500 miles away and settling down in Fairbanks, Alaska.
I’m still in awe of this place. But I feel right at home.
More to come, to be sure.
At this time ten years ago, when I turned 30, I had just moved to a new city. In the city I’d moved from, most of my friendships were pretty new. I moved very suddenly because I had to; my opportunities had completely closed up. So I settled into a big city to start a new life. The world was so big and fresh and wonderful. Life begins at 30, I declared.
Today I turn 40. I’m about to move to a new city. In the city I’m leaving, many of my friendships are pretty new (at least judging from my party RSVP’s). I am moving with plenty of advance notice because I get to. The city I have been living has opened up possibilities to move on. So soon I will be settling into a little town to start a new life. The world is so big and fresh and wonderful.
Life begins at 40.
I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).
When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry