Emma Pattee: We’re losing the luxury of a summer spent outdoors

For children growing up in the American West, it’s a question of whether you can even go outside.

(Max Whittaker | The New York Times) Firefighters head out to battle the Mosquito Fire near Foresthill, Calif, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. Smoke from wildfires has worsened over the past decade, potentially reversing decades of improvements in Western air quality made under the Clean Air Act, according to research published by Stanford University on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

On Labor Day, my husband and I stood at the sliding glass door to our hotel room balcony, staring out at smoky skies.

We were at Lake Chelan in Washington, on our first big post-pandemic vacation, with our 3-year-old and 6-week-old baby. Overnight, the wind had brought wildfire smoke from fires in Idaho and Montana. I woke up with a sore throat. I slid open the balcony door and the smell of a bonfire came rushing in. The lake was barely visible through a curtain of haze that blocked the sun and turned everything sepia-colored.

“We can’t let the kids go outdoors,” I said.

“We can’t keep them indoors,” my husband replied.

Next to us, our toddler banged his shovel against his sand bucket.

I looked down at my phone to check the air quality index: AQI 122. Above 50 is considered “acceptable.” Above 100 is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups” like children and the elderly. But there is no amount of wildfire smoke that is safe to breathe. Smoke is made up of tiny particles that burrow deep into your lungs and pass into your bloodstream. Scientists don’t know what will happen to our children, who are growing up exposed to wildfire smoke summer after summer after summer, for weeks at a time.

This is the new summer on the West Coast: checking the air quality before going on a hike, getting anxious on a windy day because it means the fires are going to get worse. Scheduling camping trips, swimming lessons and soccer camp and then canceling them as smoke interferes. Entire Saturdays spent inside, trying to entertain my rambunctious toddler and fussy baby. For children growing up in the American West, it isn’t a question of what you want to do outdoors; it’s a question of whether you can even go outside.

And it will only get worse. Climate scientists estimate that the frequency of large wildfires could increase by over 30 percent in the next 30 years and over 50 percent in the next 80 years, thanks in large part to drought and extreme heat caused by climate change. Over 40 percent of Americans live in areas with hazardous air quality levels, and that number is growing with each fire season. Twenty-four of the top 25 worst cities with particulate matter pollution are on the West Coast.

My husband and I grew up in Oregon and spent our summers camping, playing pickup basketball and biking with our friends. When I got pregnant, we talked about the things we wanted to do with our kids: camping in the Wallowas, biking down the Oregon coast, kayaking in the Columbia River and hiking on Mount Hood. All parents do this — superimpose their own childhoods onto their children’s — and parents are wrong. Their kids like soccer instead of skiing, or want to play video games instead of the piano.

But for kids growing up in the West right now, summer is becoming a season of hazards, spent at least partly indoors. Even meeting our most ambitious climate goals will not change the fact that our children will live through increasingly smoky summers in which the days they can safely play outside will become fewer and fewer. Instead of buying kayaks, I should buy them an indoor play gym. Stop stocking up on sunscreen; stock up on games and toys instead. Screen time is no longer something to avoid; it’s now a salvation.

Back in our hotel room, we eventually decide we will stay inside until the AQI drops below 100. I turn on “Paw Patrol” and my husband goes to the vending machine to buy soda and snacks.

Every 15 minutes, my son wanders over to the sliding glass door, looking out at the lake. “I have a perfect great idea,” he says, pointing at a flamingo pool float drifting forlornly in the haze. “Let’s go ride the mingo.”

“Not yet, buddy,” I say, for the hundredth time. “The air is dirty.”

It feels like admitting defeat to stop planning camping trips, or plan to host an indoor birthday party in August. I keep grasping at the summer I wish they could have: entire days playing in the woods, covered in dirt, carefree.

I am guilty of denial, too. When the air quality finally improves during our lake vacation, and we venture outside to the sandy beach, I stare up at the grimy sky and try to convince myself that this is just a one-off. Surely the smoke will fully clear tomorrow. Besides, how bad can one smoky day be for a child’s lungs?

The next morning, my toddler wakes us up with a wet, hacking cough. The smoke hasn’t cleared. We pack our bags and drive home early.

A few days later, heavy winds brought wildfire smoke to our home in northeast Portland, filling the house with the smell of stale smoke. The sky turned from gray to dirty orange, the sun a dim orb in the sky, like a streetlight that somebody forgot to turn off.

I shut all the windows and canceled our plans. Another summer day spent indoors.

Emma Pattee is a writer, climate journalist and native Oregonian. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.