August 24, 2011 I’m standing outside watching the sky. There is a storm going on like I’ve never seen before in my life. It is not raining at all, and after taking off my sandals and feeling the grass with my bare feet I find it hasn’t rained (would have been nice after 114°F temperatures that day). I look back at the sky and am amazed by the lightning filling the sky with light. This is a storm like none I’ve ever seen because: first, there is no rain; only endless lightning. Second, the lightning never seems to strike the ground, but travel from cloud to cloud like a dance of light. I don’t know why, but I find this storm so interesting I sit there and film the sky for 10 min and then call my girlfriend to tell her about it. She tells me it’s called heat lightning and is common, lol.

Anyways a few days pass and I wake up on August 27th or 28th smelling smoke and thinking the house is on fire. Apparently some of the heat lightning did strike ground on the 24th, out in Eastern New Orleans. A fire burned in Bayou Sauvage (located near I10 & I510) for a few days until it got out of control and started covering New Orleans and surrounding areas with smoke by August 28. Below are some pictures that Tanya and I took of the smoke billowing towards the city and choking the sun out of the sky on the 28th.

Swamp Fire

Swamp Fire

Swamp Fire 2

Swamp Fire 2

Blocking out the sun

Blocking out the sun

It only continued to get worse from there. On August 29th Tanya had to go to Baton Rogue for Red Cross paperwork before going to the east coast. When she got back she said she could smell the fire all the way there! (FYI, Baton Rogue is roughly 80 miles away from New Orleans). When I went to Eatin’ at Holmes’ for lunch that afternoon I also saw news coverage on the blaze. The coverage included an abundance of Facebook messages from concerned parents, that their children were having respiratory problems. Yet it seemed like the cities desicion was to let the fire keep burning as it was in a swamp and would eventually reach water.

I did find out recently though, that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality did declare the 29th an Action Day for the high levels of pm2.5 in the air. Then on the 30th the mayor declared the fire as an emergency and said it would start looking at possibilities to distinguish it. According to NOLA.ca, the fire had already burnt 2300 acres of land (equivalent to two and a half times the size of City Park) by that point. That day I trully felt the need and urgency of eliminating the fire. I was working with St. Bernard Project, demolishing a house in Midcity, but about an hour in, the wind started bringing the smoke our way until it filled the air. I started having problems breathing and by lunch time I had to call it quits. I went home and had to sleep for 4 hours on my last day in New Orleans. When I woke up my throat fealt rough and scratchy, and my clothes still smelt heavily of smoke. Below are a few pictures of the smoke covering my worksite that day.

Smoke behind the Demo

Smoke behind the Demo

I wasn’t going to write a blog about the marsh fire until I was emptying the rest of my suitcase the other day and could still smell smoke in it. I decided to look up online what became of the blaze and was shocked that it was only eventually put out the day before on September 11. However warnings continued to advise people with respiratory problems not to travel to NOLA because of air quality for another few days.

I was in NOLA during many heat warnings and an air quality alert and can say that I definitely felt the effects of both. But I don’t have any respiratory problems and was only there for one of the two weeks the fire burned before flying back to cooler Canada. I can’t imagine how rough it gets for the elderly, younger children with asthma and anyone with respiratory problems. Especially in a city that is already so hot, and has a large number of people that suffer respiratory from mold issues after Katrina.

Being made more aware of how true it is that “Heat Kills” I feel that heat emergencies should be taken more serious and there should have been stronger plans and attempts to put this fire out sooner. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the fire wasn’t taken as serious as it should have been, especially with the outcry of all the concerned parents. I encourage you to read some more blogs/news on the fire, and tell me what you think!

Bryan McGill (York University)

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