Children in smoky places

We have a niece and nephews who live in Portland, Oregon. They were feeling a slight bit of relief yesterday the air quality index rating dropped to unhealthy. When the air quality is unhealthy, “children, active adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion; everyone else should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.” The reason they felt relief is that they had suffered days of Hazardous air quality when “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.”

The smoke from wildfires has been bad all across the west. Our air quality here in Rapid City has been hovering between “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” for days. We have been advised to close windows and avoid dirty outdoor air.

One of the things that you will notice about the air quality scale is that at every level of air pollution, children are especially vulnerable. Except for the two cleanest air ratings at the top of the scale, children are specifically named as people who should limit activities when air pollution is present. Children are more likely to get upper respiratory infections, middle ear infections and even pneumonia. Exposure to smoke can put children at risk of developing asthma, even if they’ve near had any breathing problems before.

The Covid Pandemic has added a layer of complexity to those fleeing wildfires and smoky conditions across the west. Public spaces with air conditioning such as libraries and theaters are largely closed. The Alameda, California, Free Library opened the world’s first clean air center in late August and libraries around the San Francisco Bay area have followed with additional openings for clean air spaces. In addition to the clean air, the air conditioning systems offer a cooling center for those who do not have access to air conditioning.

California and Oregon already had high levels of homelessness before the fires forced additional people from their homes. It is estimated that nearly 500,000 people - or 10 percent for the state’s population - have been forced from their homes due to the threat of wildfire. Many have lost their homes and have no place to go even after the immediate danger of fire has passed. Among those left homeless are a lot of children.

The combination of poor air quality and a lack of places to shelter is already causing many children to experience respiratory distress. Hospitals and clinics, which were already overwhelmed with pandemic-related illnesses now are now being overwhelmed with victims of poor air quality.

I have spent most of my life in rural areas where the air quality is generally very good. But there have been occasions when I have been exposed to smoky air. My eyes begin to water, my nose get clogged, I find myself sneezing and, when the air is especially dirty, coughing. It isn’t pleasant. However, I have never experienced the panic of a full-blown asthma attack. I don’t know the feeling of simply not being able to breathe. It must be terrifying, and even worse if you are a child and don’t understand what is happening to you.

Great God of all times and places, we remember that when your people were enslaved in Egypt you heard their cry and provided a leader to take them out of the land of slavery and into a new life in a new place. Certainly you hear the cries of your children once again as they suffer from the smoke and pollution of unhealthy air. As they seek shelter, they know that the only true respite from the fires will come from the weather. As the seasons change and rain and snow come to the fire-ravaged areas, the fires will diminish. We know, however, that the process could take a month or more. In the meantime, your people are suffering. Every breath brings new pollutants into their bodies and they long for clean air to breathe.

You know, gracious God, how often your people have prayed for rain. You have heard those cries and you have allowed the processes of weather to follow the laws of nature and the rains have come, sometimes in a timely fashion and other times delayed beyond human endurance.

Hear now your children’s cries, especially those young ones who do not have the means to choose where they live or when they can find a place to call home. Be with those who have been driven from their homes. May they find safe shelter. May those who have safe places be inspired to share those places with others. May we be moved to take meaningful actions to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters and to invest in actions which will help mitigate the effects of future fires.

We give you thanks that the forests of our hills are not currently experiencing the intensity of fires that rage in other places. We know that we, too, are vulnerable to rapidly spreading fire events. The stories we see playing out across the west could be our story as well. For the protection we have experienced we are grateful. Help us to release our urge to complain about the smoke in our skies and the restrictions that we are experiencing. We know that there are others who are suffering far more than we. Forgive us when our selfishness prevents us from seeing the suffering of others.

May we never take for granted the blessing of the breaths we take. We know that the ancient generations of our people understood the connection between breathing and the moving of the Holy Spirit throughout the community and throughout our bodies. Even modern words such as “inspire” remind us that to breathe is to literally take the spirit into our bodies. “Expire” reminds us that without the spirit we cannot live. Breathe your spirit upon those who are suffering from wildfire smoke. May your gentle winds carry the pollution away from their skies. May precipitation extinguish fires and cleanse the air they breath.

In your spirit we pray, Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!