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When we first arrived at PSU, we were all impressed by the peak of Mt. Hood, an imposing figure despite being 50 miles away by crow. Today, from the same spot in the dorm’s stairway, we could barely see the mile across the river.

I first heard about Portland’s worsening air quality yesterday, when my supervisor Shawn mentioned leaving his bike at home to avoid the outdoor exercise. Curious, my fellow DukeEngage intern at OPAL googled ‘Portland air quality.’ The result, in orange letters, seemed fairly innocuous: AQI: 102, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Considering the Air Quality Index scale presented went from 0 to 500, we agreed that it seemed Portland wasn’t getting hit to bad.

We needed some context: the next search was ‘Durham air quality.’ The result? 40, Good. Much of the East Coast was similar. Well, we knew California was getting hit pretty hard with the same fires Oregon was. ‘San Francisco air quality’: 25, Good. Uh oh. We were determined not to lose this one, so we played our ace: ‘Beijing air quality.’

39, Excellent. Whoops.

Our outdated assumptions about the Chinese capital’s air quality aside, it seemed like the warning about exercise outdoors was more serious than we thought. We resolved to forgo any planned outdoor exercises for the evening but largely thought that would be the end of our issues with air in Portland. Today, we woke up to a city that was actually hazy. The temperatures were low in the morning, so my first thought was clouds – it seemed a little gray. But as the bus took us over the river, we saw the smoke hovering over the city for what it was. Portland’s reading for today was upgraded to red: 170, Unhealthy.

According to the Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper, a combination of smoke from wildfires blanketing Canada, Washington, Oregon, and California can be blamed for the incredible measurements of fine particulate matter in the city. The huge impact of these events, as far away as some of them are, really brought home a point Shawn made when discussing the environmental justice movement. When dealing with issues of the environment, it is too often the case that people separate the natural environment from the lived environment, the wild and untamed world from the civilized and constructed one. But OPAL and the environmental justice movement aim to dispel the myth that the disasters we read about – the fires, the melting ice, the dying animals – is happening to one world and not the other. It should be obvious that watching the ice melt is synonymous with watching summer temperatures all over the city (especially in East Portland) and all over the world rise. And it should also be obvious that seeing fires raging in the Cascades means seeing the large houseless population in Portland, who spend all day and night outside, coughing and suffering from lung-related ailments. Ignoring the realities of sharing our world with these disasters, or treating these issues as detached and abstract can never lead to their resolution.

Since this is the last blog of my DukeEngage experience, I want to end on a lighter note. I was asked recently about things I’d miss and things I wouldn’t miss from my time in Portland. My list of things I’d miss is a little too long to enumerate, but highlights include the people I’ve met, the transit system I’ve grown accustomed to, and the surprisingly comfortable and convenient room I’ve stayed in.

The list of things I won’t miss is very short. Wildfires and Nazi rallies. If I find either back East, I’m taking the first plane back to Portland and hoping OPAL takes me back.

Left: My view of Mt. Hood on June 21st. Right: Similar perspective from August 14th, found online.