As I sat in the bleachers during an outdoor graduation in South Georgia on May 25th, 2007, the sun began to set into a clear sky and everything appeared to be going perfectly. That is, until the smoke from the Georgia wildfires starting puffing its way into the stadium. Living about an hour north of the danger area myself, I had not been previously familiar with any of the problems that citizens living around the fires had been forced to cope with at that time. However, I quickly learned just how miserable of a situation it was.
At first, the smell of fire was light, similar to the odor that is often cast off during a barbeque. I thought nothing of it. About five minutes later, we could literally see large, single puffs flowing only about twenty feet above the heads of the graduates who were seated on the field. However, few seemed to notice. A few short minutes later, I was walking to my car through a light haze, coughing and choking on the thickening air. I had no choice but to leave early due to the toxic, smoggy atmosphere that was now developing all around me. Because of my Asthma, as most know is a fairly common chronic lung condition, I was fearful of making it to the car without passing out, even though those around me seemed to be fine. It must have been quite obvious that I was from out of town, as I heard comments moments before in the stands of how this sort of thing happened around the same time every night. What I thought would have caused a sudden exodus only seemed to be causing agitation and frustration from those who were now used to the effects of the local wildfires. Apparently, this was now a commonplace occurrence. I remember having seen a man confined to a wheelchair and a portable oxygen tank being wheeled into the stadium earlier, and I couldn’t help but wonder as to whether or not he was now in serious danger, as I honestly felt that I was.
I stopped at a gas station just outside of the stadium to fill up before my long journey home, and much to my surprise I was quickly forced back into the car after opening my door as the onset of ash and smoke in my lungs was more than I could bare, especially having not been accustomed to it as those of that area were. My husband insisted that I stay in the car, fearful for my safety. As he exited the car and closed the door as hurriedly as possible to prevent any more smoke from entering my breathing space, I sat and took in the view all around me. What would have been a bright night was encumbered in what could now only be called ash. Though we were probably a good thirty miles away from any actual flames, I couldn’t help but notice that the smoke was so thick that it actually dimmed the city lights and the few neon signs of that small south Georgia town. I was very familiar with this rural town and what its nights usually looked like, as I had resided there at one time a few years before, and I was taken back by its now ghastly appearance. Looking out of my window, I noticed that there were no visible stars in the sky. In the country, there are always stars visible, even on cloudy evenings, but there was absolutely nothing in the sky that could be seen through the smog.
As we continued to travel, we began to realize that we were playing a cat and mouse game with the smoke. Barely able to drive in it, we knew we had to get out of it as soon as possible. Driving at constant rate of sixty miles per hour, we were finally able to break through the smog about twenty five miles into our drive. It was a dangerous twenty five miles. Drivers coming into the smoke from the opposite direction on our small, unlit highway seemed confused as they began to enter the haze. Their driving was a bit erratic. Those in front of us and traveling away from the smoke were constantly stomping on their brake pedals, perhaps because, like us, there were weary of trusting their own eyes.
By this time, my husband and I both had headaches from just a few moments of breathing in this polluted air. My eyes were burning, my throat was itching, and the smoke and ash were only getting worse for those we had left behind. I cannot imagine what it must be like for these people to have to live in this on a daily basis, especially those who live even closer to the fires themselves. Thankfully, I had only a brief interlude with the masses of smoke that are engulfing the southernmost portion of my state, and I was very fortunate. However, a registered nurse from a prominent hospital about one hour north of the site that I visited states that she has had to fight the smoke in her hospital’s corridors during her night shifts. Again, she tells me that she and her neighbors have come to expect the nightly onset. All this at a distance of seventy miles north of the site that I have aforementioned. The distance that this damaging smoke can travel intact is astonishing. Considering that it kept me, a healthy woman in her twenties with only a slight case of Asthma, imprisoned in my own car, it is not difficult for one to imagine the hardships that this is placing on the elderly, the very young, and the ill. As I finish writing this article on May 30th, 2007, the haze is now surrounding my home all the way up in Central Alabama. It is believed that it will soon go as far north as Atlanta, and there is no word yet on when we will begin to see any relief.