Mountain residents have no doubt smoke made them sick
Diagnosed with asthma for first time
Deana Schmidt, 61, has lived in Lewiston since 1979. She bitterly remembers the chaos of the 1999 Lewiston Fire, a Bureau of Land Management-controlled burn that escaped containment and forced the evacuation of the town.
But she says the ever-present haze last summer was far, far worse.
While the 1999 fires caused worry and inconvenience, last summer’s fires made her sick.
Schmidt said it started with coughing, then it progressed to wheezing and a respiratory infection.
She was diagnosed with asthma for the first time in her life. She had to take weeks off work as a clerk at Lewiston’s only mini-mart. She needed an inhaler to breathe.
Trapped in her home, unable to go outdoors, she said it was like being a prisoner in a smoke-filled jail for two months.
“I was miserable,” she said. “It lasted until the smoke went away.”
The situation was made worse knowing that firefighters were intentionally lighting burnouts, which kept the air hazy, she said.
Although she feels like her lung function has fully recovered since the summer, she’s worried about cumulative effects.
And she’s already dreading the next fire season.
“This summer, if it happens again, I’m out of here,” she said.
‘I felt like I was breathing through a straw’
Sherry Forslund, 63, remembers watching the thick cloud of smoke drift in and settle around her 90-year-old log cabin in Weaverville. The flowers on her back porch wilted. After a few days, Forslund began wheezing. She’d never suffered from asthma, and, at first, she thought she just had a chest cold. Then her lungs seemed to close up — she just couldn’t get enough oxygen.
“I felt like I was breathing through a straw,” she said.
On June 30, as she gasped for air in her office at the Weaverville-based Human Response Network, her arm started to feel numb. She called the doctor, who told her to come in — then promptly sent her to the hospital. She spent four days there, pumped full of steroids, antibiotics, oxygen and morphine to counter a horrible asthma attack. The painkiller helped with the muscle spasms that resulted from a series of excruciating breathing treatments.
The doctor released her after her husband bought a special air filter for their home. Forslund spent much of the summer on her couch, looking out the window at her smoke-filled backyard. Her health improved when the smoke cleared. Still, she always carries an inhaler in her purse.
Poor health worsened
Last month, Darryl Stiliha, 59, sat in the waiting room of Dr. Randall Meredith’s Weaverville office, an oxygen tube looped under his nose.
He said his already poor health has worsened significantly since the summer. Already ill with congestive heart failure and pulmonary disease, he grew increasingly lethargic as the smoky days wore on. He began taking more of each of his medications.
Stiliha originally moved to the area from Los Angeles to take care of his ailing mother — he stayed, in part, because the mountain air seemed to do him good. Until the fires arrived. He thought about evacuating, but was on a fixed income and didn’t have the money to leave. Instead, for relief from the stale air in his apartment, he sometimes turned on his swamp cooler, which just sucked more smoke inside.
“I felt kind of trapped here, yes I did,” he said.
Fires compound problems from a lifetime of smoking
Larry Dearborn, 81, thinks he probably should have evacuated along with his wife, Joanie, last summer. But he was worried about embers blowing around his house in Big Bar. He thought one might land on his deck and start a fire. He stuck around until, finally, the smoke got so bad he couldn’t see his neighbor’s house.
Dearborn, who started smoking at age 17 while in the Navy in Guam, quit not too long ago. In recent years, he’s fallen ill with bronchitis every winter. This winter, he caught pneumonia.
“It got so bad, I was just on my knees. I could hardly breathe,” he said.
Now he sits in an easy chair in his living room, hooked up to the oxygen that came home with him after his recent stint in the hospital.
Dearborn blames the cigarettes, in large part, for his bad health. He was sick before the fires, he says, but he’s gotten worse since.
“All the smoke from this last summer triggered it off,” he said.
‘I’ve never breathed the same’
Thomas Lee McKay, 68, of Weaverville never had any respiratory troubles before last summer.
Now the former truck driver who runs a day care center out of his home says he’s been diagnosed with emphysema.
McKay, a former smoker, began coughing and wheezing when smoke began clogging the sky after the June 20 lightning storm that started last year’s fires.
Purifiers that vacuumed the air inside his double-wide mobile home barely helped.
He looks toward this summer with trepidation.
“I’ve never breathed the same since that firestorm,” he said, his hands shaking as he gripped his recliner’s arm rest. “I pray that the fires will stay away.”
Blood robbed of oxygen
Kevin Hawkins, 53, has lived in Trinity County his whole life. The whitehaired, husky highway worker from Weaverville assumed he was used to the smoke that sometimes fills the skies during fire season.
Until last year.
“It started off like any other summer,” Hawkins said. “Then I started getting sick.”
Soon after the smoke rolled into the mountain valleys, he started coughing and wheezing. His co-workers eventually convinced him to see a doctor.
Hawkins said his blood-oxygen levels were so low, his doctor was amazed he could even walk through the door.
He needed 2 1/2 weeks off work to fully recover. Now, Hawkins is worried about the summer and the fires to come, and he thinks his neighbors should be, too. “I think everybody should be concerned. If they get more intense or worse, we’re probably going to have more breathing problems,” Hawkins said.
‘I’ll take my chances’
These days, Gwen McCumber, 72, is often short of breath. The fires exacerbated her emphysema and asthma, she says. Her health “has never been as good as it was before then.” She once used her inhaler occasionally; now she uses it twice a day.
For five weeks, McCumber’s home in Hyampom was surrounded by thick, whitish gray smoke. Two days a week, she’d strap on a mask given to her by the local fire department and head out to work as a gate attendant at the dump. If the mask got too hot, she sometimes took it off.
On the morning of Aug. 21, McCumber started gasping for air. Her doctor ordered chest X-rays and a battery of other tests — and discovered she had congestive heart failure.
“It’s not healthy, but that’s nature, you know,” McCumber said of the fires. “You can’t do anything about it — except move, I guess. But I’ll take my chances.”
Bob Sherman says his wife prides herself on how active she is at 75 years old.
That’s why the Hayfork woman didn’t slow down last summer when her hometown of 32 years filled up with smoke.
“She was outside with the neighbors in their garden from dawn ‘til dark, day after day after day,” said Bob Sherman, 80.
While he remembered to wear a mask all summer while outdoors, his wife often didn’t. And she hasn’t breathed properly since the fall.
Earlier this month, she was rushed to a San Francisco hospital for heart surgery.
“I know the smoke probably did a lot of damage,” he said.
‘I couldn’t go outside’
Carrie Parmeter, 45, of Douglas City is the kind of woman you’d expect to be a counselor for domestic violence victims.
She’s gruff, strong and carries herself with an efficiency of purpose. She speaks in brisk, no-nonsense language, and when she plops down in her
chair inside her Weaverville office and tells you she doesn’t want her picture taken, you know she won’t change her mind.
But as strong as she is, she was crippled last summer by the smoke. She had asthma for the first time in her life.
“I couldn’t go outside, and I had a mask over my face all summer long,” she said.
She says her airways have never quite recovered, and a “blah” feeling follows her around to this day.
Plus, there were emotional effects.
Last summer, she watched two of her elderly neighbors move away and observed her normally lush organic garden produce virtually no vegetables because of the lack of sun. Plus, Squirty, her 18-year-old Chihuahua, died, apparently the victim of too much smoke, her vet told her.