Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.
“It’s time to bring the chickens inside,” I told my husband on Sept. 10. I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. All week I had watched as winds whipped down branches in my yard just south of Portland, Ore., and smoke from the fires some 20 miles away gave the sun an eerie red glow. Despite the red flag warning and the fires popping up all over the West Coast, I never imagined it would get worse than that. But geography won’t keep us safe from large wildfires anymore.
I began refreshing air-quality maps, watching as the numbers rose from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” into ranges where no one should be outside. I worried about my nine chickens. Like most birds, they have sensitive respiratory systems, and a few of mine were already under the weather. Their coop outside has only a small nest box for them to lay eggs in and sleep in at night; most of it is a run covered in galvanized wire. “When the air quality goes above 250, I’ll bring them inside,” I’d said earlier that day. Now it was 280 and climbing. My entire county was on what the U.S. Forest Service calls “evacuation 1 alert ” (the lowest of three) from the Riverside Fire.
We had planned to set up a tent in the basement and fill the bottom with straw, a hack I’d seen chicken-keepers use during the weather-related emergencies that seem so frequent these days. But the tent poles were broken. What could we do? Every time I opened the door the house filled with the smell of smoke, and the chickens coughed and sneezed when I walked past. I wanted to sit down and cry.
We had a small movable coop we used to quarantine new chickens or put baby chicks in when they outgrew the brooder box in the upstairs bathroom. So, we assembled it in the basement. I put a tarp down first to keep the inevitable chicken poop and straw off the tiles. It was time to bring the chickens inside.
The chickens did not want to come inside.
I put on an N95 mask to wrangle hens out of the coop one at a time and walk them up the hill to the house. A few of them got a wing loose from my grasp and smacked me in the face. After I repeated this nine times, my Fitbit congratulated me on the 16-minute aerobic workout it had helpfully auto-logged. I thought the chickens would be inside for a few days.
It’s been a week, and the air quality is still hazardous. Early on, I apologized to my husband that chickens outnumbered us and our two dogs inside our home. We can’t use the couch or television, which sit just a few feet from the coop and are covered in a thin layer of dust from feathers and straw. “It’s just a one-time thing,” he said, “and it’s the right thing to do.” But everything I’ve read about the increasing intensity of fires on the West Coast makes me worry.
I wasn’t the only one bringing my chickens inside. In a Facebook group, I saw photos of chickens in shower stalls, tents in garages, covered playpens, even in a dining room decked in pee pads and tarps. During the pandemic, it’s been comforting that the chickens believe everything is business as usual. Now I wish I could explain I’m not, in fact, doing this to torture them. My rescue hens, Thelma and Louise, who spent the first two years of their lives in a small cage, are particularly grumpy about the move back to confinement. I can hear them wail from my office two floors up.
Despite the air filter running 24-7, downstairs smells exactly like a barn. We’re lucky compared with the many Oregon residents who lost loved ones and homes to the fires. Though we were on evacuation warning, we didn’t even have to leave our home. But none of us are happy.
I worry weeklong chicken sleepovers will become a regular occurrence; that this is the new normal. As in California, decades of fire suppression — the practice of aggressively fighting fires even in remote areas — have turned forests in Oregon into tinderboxes. A map of wildfire risk in Oregon shows a disconcerting amount of the state at “high” or “very high” risk. While some might travel to escape the smoke, I can’t do that as long as I have animals that live outside. We’re all stuck here together.
I keep seeing people say that if the East Coast were on fire and covered in smoke, we might do something about climate change. I believe if enough people lived with a chicken coop in their basement, it might accomplish the same thing.