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What I Learned About Self-Care During Fire Season

As wildfires raged near my California town, a surprising practice helped me manage the stress, smoke and flames.

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In early August, I was jolted awake in the middle of the night by a feeling. 

I shot up as the scent of smoke filled my nasal cavity. I woke up my partner repeating, “It’s smoke, there’s a fire.” He got out of bed and went to his computer to check a local online forum for more information.

I looked outside our open window, but it was too dark to see if we were just experiencing something called “drift smoke” — smoke that had wandered over from a distant fire — or if local flames had taken hold. I rushed around to pack us a “go bag.” We knew better than to not have one packed, but the thought of evacuating during a pandemic felt so far removed from reality.

My partner came back to our bedroom and interrupted me; it was drift smoke lingering from the first major fire of the summer. Without an immediate threat, we simply closed our windows and went back to bed.

This wasn't our first run-in with California wildfires. We spent three years in Los Angeles where we had our first encounters with smoke-filled skies from distant flames. A little over a year ago we moved to a rural mountain town in Southern California. The mountains quickly taught us the importance of adapting; within our first month we were working to prevent bears from raiding our trash bins.

In our home, any day over 90 degrees is one we usually endure with the fans on and the windows open, optimistic that a breeze might stop on by. But in the mountains, we live among trees and dry brush, making the threat of a fire arriving at our door more present. Living here has meant learning to tolerate uncertainty. Since that night in early August, we’ve been able to see three different fires from our living room window. The second fire was so close to our home that we were able to watch as helicopters flew by dumping water and other containment materials.

The third fire was started in early September by a gender reveal party and overlapped with a historic heat wave. On that September morning, I woke up to see smoke billowing toward our house, so thick that our typical view was obscured. At this point we'd grown accustomed to the unsettling orange glow that flooded our home first thing in the morning and to the occasional sight of ash falling from the sky.

By mid-morning, I could smell and feel the smoke in the house. So I closed the windows in resignation. I considered self-care practices like meditating or mustering some gratitude, but frankly it all felt forced. I was overwhelmed and I couldn’t see past the fires, the heat wave, the pandemic and the grief from the flames of systemic racism that had been palpable all summer long.

So I made a milkshake. 

Since the fires started, these milkshakes have been a staple for me, usually consisting of oat milk, banana, cacao and an assortment of herbal powders that support the body’s ability to handle stress.

In the past, self-care has sometimes felt like a performance, an attempt to do the “right” thing, even when it’s not supportive. But in these stressful and traumatic times, I’ve genuinely needed to emphasize the care of self-care.

There are times when I have the capacity to meditate or exercise or affirm my belief in a better tomorrow. And then there are times where making my existence a little less uncomfortable is the best that I can manage.

In making that milkshake, nothing materially changed. Yet for a moment, I allowed myself to not only slow down, but zoom in — to feel being overwhelmed and focus my senses on something that helped me get back in my body. Sometimes it’s not a milkshake, it’s a cup of tea, feeling my feet on the carpet, lingering in the scent of an essential oil or taking a few deep breaths. These little moments of presence and self-soothing have become a necessary adaptation and anchor in these times of collective trauma.

I also try not to brace for the worst and instead focus on what I can do: sweeping dry leaves and brush away from our home, making note of different roads down the mountain in case of evacuation, drinking teas made of herbs that are good for the lungs and, of course, finally packing that “go bag.”

Whenever we leave the mountains it won't be because of the fires. The truth is that uncertainty is a constant for everybody right now. This year alone, California has seen 7,606 wildfires and, as I write this, more than 23,000 people are still evacuated. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, across the West Coast, as of mid-September, at least 6.7 million acres have burned. The smoke has made its way to not only the East Coast but to Europe, too.

There is no escaping this. So instead I choose to zoom in, to focus on what little things I can do with the understanding that caring for myself teaches me how to care for the world. Learning to respond to my own shifting feelings teaches me how to respond to whatever circumstances may arise.

As such, my definition of self-care is constantly adapting to meet me and not the other way around. There are times when caring for myself means giving myself validation and comfort, and those times are just as important no matter how small they feel. In times of uncertainty, I’ve found that being that source of nourishment for myself is the one thing that remains firmly within my control.