Covid Castaway

Stanley Bloom

© Copyright 2021 by Stanley Bloom

Photo by Ross Stone on Unsplash
                                                                  Photo by Ross Stone on Unsplash

My travel story begins with a scheduled three-week visit to family members in California. That was early in March last year. Countless flight cancellations, travel restrictions and ESTA extensions later, instead of being six thousand miles away, I was still there. But life for me was not to be a simple matter of seldom venturing beyond the front door, mask-wearing and social distancing whenever I did step outside, thoroughly washing hands and ordering supplies online for delivery. Much more drama lay in store.

It began with a heatwave. Where the family live, the temperature rose to thirty-five degrees Celsius, followed by highs of thirty-eight and a couple of days with a scorching forty-two, which is a little over one-hundred-and-seven on the Fahrenheit scale. Then came a prolonged night-time thunderstorm, with not a drop of rain but countless lightning strikes that ignited the tinder-dry terrain. Many of the innumerable small fires soon merged to form large conflagrations spreading their ugly flames and fumes to threaten everything and everyone in sight. And well beyond.

By the morning, grey ash was raining down on us through the increasingly acrid air. An official warning was issued: Be prepared to evacuate! To think, I had come for a short stay, yet here I was five months later, marooned by the pandemic and now, along with everyone else for many miles around, menaced by one of those fearful wildfires.

What to do? We decided to pack what we could and head initially, the next day, to an in-law's place some fifty miles away. Social distancing within the extended family circle would have to go by the board. “Take only what is of value to you,” the kids were told. “Provided it isn't too bulky.” They silently set about their task. They had seen the ash and smelt the smoke. And were old enough to understand what was happening. An uncomfortable, nervous night awaited.

The situation was yet more ominous by the time we finally departed, well aware that the family could have seen the last of their house and home with all but the few belongings we were taking with us. The children were duly deposited with the in-laws while we went to check on somewhere to stay. We were very fortunate. Many evacuees were forced to rely on emergency arrangements made by local authorities or organisations, with covid complicating every step of the way. In our case, a relation of the in-laws had a temporarily empty apartment we could use, not far from San Francisco airport.

We went there, left our things – then drove all the way back to the fire-threatened house to rescue what else we could. The pungent air, thick and tinged with an orange glow, was painful to breathe. Out came our face masks. The virus was not now the only menace to keep at bay. Inside, items were quickly collected, including clothes and food from fridge, freezer and cupboards. And this time, before we left, a mandatory order to vacate was in force. Incredibly, we later learned that some people refused to go and had to be removed. Perhaps they had an exaggerated belief in their ability to protect their property, not only from fire, but the possibility of looters breaking into homes when it was guaranteed that nobody was there. All roads into the area were then closed.

We collected the kids and went back to our small temporary refuge, which we arranged as comfortably as we could. From there we were able to follow the fight against the flames. Press conferences and fire-fighters' briefings from the command and control centre set up in the local park just a few hundred metres from the family's home, were relayed online. We also continually checked air quality on the Purple Air site. Single figures were best, but anything under fifty on the scale used was still shown as acceptable. Where we had come from it was well over four hundred.

But even in our new location, the air could be far from good. All depended on the winds, as pollution from other fires, and there were many of them, could easily drift in our direction. It was infinitely better, however, than what we had left behind. Nevertheless, we seldom ventured out during our enforced exile. When we did, we drove to a coastal area for an afternoon or evening walk in air that was indeed fresher, but with mask-wearing and keeping a safe distance from other people still the golden rule.

We remained refugees for more than a week. By then the fire – ‘our’ fire – was sufficiently contained for us to be allowed back. It had destroyed more than nine hundred homes in a part of the state not normally afflicted by the notorious wildfires. But in 2020 they were more widespread, numerous and intense than ever, the weather more extreme. At the height of the emergency, the governor urged people who didn't believe in climate change and global warming to come to California. Well, for my part, I was already a firm believer and thanks – or no thanks – to covid, was already there.

However, the immediate area around where the family live was now considered safe. At most, two thousand four hundred people had been battling the blaze, back-burning, ringing it in, denying it fresh fuel. When weather permitted, which wasn't always, helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft joined the fray, dousing from above. When we walked past the park now that we were back, we could see long lines of vehicles marked ‘mobile sleeping trailer’ or ‘mobile shower trailer’ drawn up on the grass. Members of the national guard had joined the fray which, though being steadily won, was by no means over.

Neither was the heat, which briefly rose to an unbearable forty-four degrees, a little more than a hundred-and-eleven Fahrenheit.

In the months that passed after that, despite more heat, if nothing like as great as before; rainstorms threatening flash floods, rock- or mudslides; high winds bringing down power lines, leading to outages and starting yet more fires, though they were quickly dealt with; and a four-point-four quake that sent the children under the dining-room table fearing worse was to come (they had been taught what to do at school); we didn't need to abandon ship and seek refuge elsewhere, though by no means everyone in that neck of the woods could say the same.

If there is one thing the pandemic taught me it is that you never can tell if or when you may be caught up in life's great dramas. Suddenly to find myself part of catastrophic events I had only heard or read about, or seen on television from afar, made me realise there are times and places where you can expect the unexpected.

As a covid castaway, I found myself in such a place, at such a time.

Born in the UK, I have been resident in Sweden for many years and was formally on the staff of Radio Sweden - as a broadcaster.

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