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A knock on the front door: the climate diaries

I look out my window, across the valley floor, toward the forested hills and the familiar uneven ridgeline in the distance. What I see instead, what obscures everything, is a haze of dense, toxic smoke, grainy gray and tulle fog white that glows a surreal copper orange and red at sunset.

For the last six months our days been defined by a stalking, harrowing virus, haunted daily by the relentless rise in cases and the tolling, hollow sound of grief as a thousand people die a suffocating death daily, their unmoving hands held by strangers who stand close and bear witness.

But suddenly, abruptly, we are once again reminded that there is another existential crisis stalking us — a reality for which there is no vaccine: global warming. Our planet is metaphorically and literally simmering, a green-blue-white pot on a stove and we seem, by all evidence offered, unable or unwilling to lower the flame. And for us denizens of the West Coast of America, this crisis has grimly returned. Forests, grasslands, towns, neighborhoods burn, and the predicted future — one foretold in dystopian science fiction, or couched in the language of denial — is once again with us. “One day we’ll fix it. But not today and not tomorrow. And, of course, we have time.” Meanwhile

But then there was last Tuesday. I was standing in the kitchen, and had heard sirens, two, maybe three, rising and falling, then fading. It was a beautiful day, cloudless, still too warm, the brittle green-brown hills baked.

Suddenly I heard a knocking on our front door. It wasn’t a “can I borrow a cup of sugar” knock. It was an urgent, come quickly knock. I opened the door and saw my neighbor standing there, already turning to leave. “There’s a fire,” she said, and pointed north. “We’re evacuating.” I looked at her and asked, “To where?” That’s all I could think of to say. Her answer was lost in the moment as she hurried away. I was stunned. A fire. What fire? I called to my wife and then walked over and turned on the television, a local station, anticipating at least a crawl of emergency information. The screen was dark with only a stark message promising that the picture would return in a moment. My computer? It said only that I wasn’t connected. My wife and I stood in the living room and then walked out onto our deck. Fire? Evacuated? The wind blew in tree-bending gusts. We looked for smoke on the horizon. We listened for sirens. We waited, treading water. And then called a neighbor. They were going to wait and see, they said. We reassured ourselves. We’d wait. Plus, the wind was blowing north, away from Ashland. Wasn’t it? We put together a bag of must have stuff that suddenly seemed insufficient, ill-planned.

Ashland is a small town, cupped in a wilderness to the west and grassland to the east. The weeks have been unyieldingly hot, scorching. Suddenly everything seemed vulnerable. Fragile. Level 1, 2, 3? Red flags now raised? Possibly. Or not.

And just like that, in that one afternoon, a window shade snapped open and we were reminded harshly (and, we later learned, tragically) of the perennial crisis that is, however silent and disguised, ever with us. And we once again felt as if we were being shaken awake. That urgent knock on the door we’re leaving. But to where? Where on planet earth can we go? And so that familiar and forgotten reality, in that moment, seismically returned: we are at a climate crossroads. And once again we are awakened. The knock on the door.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.