Is Being ‘Smoked In’ the New Normal? 

By Sachi Kato

Report from California

     This past November, tragedy struck the small town of Paradise, California, just east of Chico. An inferno of unprecedented proportions, the colossal “Camp Fire,” claimed the lives of 88 victims, while another 26 remain missing as of December 1. A mind boggling 153,336 acres burned, an area equivalent to more than four times the size of San Francisco. At times the fire spread at a rate of 80 football fields per minute. All told, close to 19,000 structures burned, most of them homes, as what was known as Paradise now lies in utter ruin.

     This infamous episode is the single most destructive fire in California history, and many members of the scientific community agree that it signals a new era, one of increasing frequency and heightened intensity in wildfire activity on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Members of the macrobiotic community were thankful to hear that the fire did not reach the headquarters of the George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation in Chico. Unfortunately, 13 employees at Lundberg Family Farms, some of the farmers who devote their work to growing organic, high quality rice, were displaced by the fire, prompting the company to establish the Camp Fire Relief Fund to assist the affected rice growers.   

     The Camp Fire began November 8, as strong gusts of wind fanned the flames amidst an extended dry season in which little rain touched the ground for several months. Although I live 200 miles southwest of Paradise in the San Francisco Bay Area, the smoke reached our doorstep within 8 hours of the fire’s onset, on account of a northeast-erly wind pattern. This pattern persisted for thirteen days, delivering a seemingly endless supply of thick smoke to my area, prompting the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to issue warn-ings, urging people to stay indoors and avoid outdoor activity. During the days of heavy smoke from the Camp Fire, we checked the AQI readings many times a day to see the level of particulate matter in the air. In response to these hazardous conditions, many universities and local schools closed down, outdoor events were cancelled, and many activities came to a halt. A toxic purple-gray haze ominously blanketed the horizon, leaving many coughing, wheezing, and feeling unwell.

     Considering the slew of malign components likely to be present in the particulate matter, like dioxins, hydrocarbons, benzene, etc., the true toxicity level of the smoke was hard to gauge. Given the certain dangers and the many other potential perils of the situation, I took this event seriously, especially with an 18-month-old baby in the home. Keeping the little one inside was necessary. Two air purifiers hummed along throughout the day, and windows remained closed. When it was necessary for an adult to go out, N-95 respirator masks, which block 95% of particulate matter at 0.3 microns and above, were worn. This went on for 13 days, cabin fever and all.

     Most N-95 masks were sold out in stores within a few days of the onset of the incident, leaving many Bay Area residents without proper protection against the harmful air for the bulk of the event. In our home we still had N-95 masks left over from the ones we purchased just 13 months earlier, when a major fire, the Tubbs Fire, tore through the wine country of Sonoma and Napa just north of San Francisco. As the Camp Fire ratcheted up and I sheltered-in-place for a second straight year, I began to wonder if being “smoked-in” was part of the annual cycle for California residents. Will Californians come to look at being “smoked-in” as part of life, just as those who live in snowy climates are accustomed to being “snowed-in” during extreme snowstorms? California’s Governor Jerry Brown, in a statement made three months before the Camp Fire began said, “Over a decade or so we [California] will have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions will have to be spent.” He went on to say that increased wildfire activity is the “new normal,” a phrase that I heard several times in the wake of the Camp Fire. If this is the “new normal,” how do we cope?

     Beyond the immediate effects smoke has on human health, wildfire smoke can wreak havoc in many other, more insidious ways. For instance, farmers whose land stood in the path of the Camp Fire smoke suffered harsh losses due to mere loss of sunlight as the sun was obscured for extended periods of time. To add to this calamity, farmers dealt with a drop-off in labor productivity, as workers could not function in the thick, debilitating smoke present in the fields. In some cases, workers weren’t able to enter the fields at all for several days. Economic researchers are currently hard at work to calculate just how many tens of millions of dollars were lost by the agricultural industry due to the Camp Fire. Scientists and researchers are analyzing exactly how plants are affected by their contact with wildfire smoke. Relatively little research has been done on this subject, especially in regard to wildfires that burn both forest areas and human settlements.

     While it does appear that smoke from wildfires can carry toxins to the food supply, other potentially hazardous substances are entering the ecosystem as a result of wildfires. Aerial firefighting, standard operating procedure for the fire department in their approach to fighting fires, includes the use of fire-suppression chemicals. These chemicals are mixed with water and dumped on wildfires en masse by firefighting planes. As seen on news footage, this mixture descends onto forests as lengthy, thick waves of blood-red colored waterfalls, emitted from tanks that are hooked on to firefighting planes.

     With all of the increased toxic loads we absorb in California as a result of the growing number and increased intensity of wildfires, macrobiotic food and remedies provide precious treatments for associated environmental toxicity. For days of heavy smoke exposure, we can help mitigate the harsh, smoky conditions with food as our medicine. Here are some recipes and a list of remedies I would like to share for future precautions, since it looks like California and many other locations will be experiencing longer and more intense fire seasons in the years ahead.

Creamy Quinoa Porridge

     This breakfast porridge was a winner to get through those tough two weeks. Quinoa is actually a seed that originated in the Andes mountains, where it adapted in a low oxygen environment. Quinoa is believed to support the intake of maximum oxygen into your body. When puréed, this porridge transforms to such a creamy texture that our 18-month-old went crazy for it, and it provided comfort for everyone in our family to start the day.

Serves 3–4  

1/2 cup quinoa

3 cups water

a pinch of sea salt

  1. Wash quinoa well using mesh strainer. Place quinoa in saucepan with water and sea salt.
  2. Bring to a boil over medium high flame. Cover the pot, lower the heat to low flame, and simmer for 25 minutes.
  3. Remove from flame and blend with emulsion blender until quinoa becomes a creamy texture. Bring back to a boil over low heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Remove from flame and let stand for 10 minutes.
  5. Mix gently and serve.

Super Detox Miso Soup

     How amazing can miso be? Miso helps your body to detox heavy metals, toxic chemicals and even radiation! At the same time, it strengthens the blood and vitalizes the entire system. During those days of toxic smoke, Travis had to go to work in a harsh environment and came back feeling very weak and sick in his lungs. Fortunately, this miso soup was waiting for him. Immediately after having it, he felt so much better. In such extreme circumstances, we recommend using aged dark miso since it is more medicinal and contains more power to detoxify.

Makes 6–8 servings

4 cups water

1 dried shiitake

2 teaspoons dried wakame flakes or 3 inches dried wakame strip,   


1/4 cup daikon, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons carrots, thinly sliced

1/4 cup silken tofu, cut into small cubes

3–4 teaspoons aged dark miso (such as barley, brown rice or Hatcho miso)

1 teaspoon grated ginger

scallions for garnish

  1. In a saucepan, place water, dried shiitake, and wakame for 20 minutes, until shiitake and wakame become soft. Take them out and slice thin (make sure to discard the hard part of the shiitake mushroom stem).
  2. Put shiitake and wakame back in saucepan. Add daikon and carrots.
  3. Over a medium heat, bring to a boil, cover, reduce flame to medium low, and cook until vegetables are soft, about 5–10 minutes.
  4. Add tofu cubes and cook for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, dissolve miso into a paste in a small bowl by adding a little broth.
  5. Reduce flame to low and add miso and ginger juice. Simmer a few minutes. Do not bring to a full boil.
  6. Gently stir miso soup and serve with scallions.

Everyday Kanten for Your Peace of Mind

     Mild yin is necessary to maintain mental health in the midst of a busy life. This apple kanten was a great savior to keep us sane while we were stuck in the house for two weeks. Such an extended confinement at home meant we needed something to keep us from getting too yang, and kanten was exactly what we needed. I made this mildly sweet so everyone, including our baby, could eat it every day.

Serves 6–8

2 cups water

4 tablespoons kanten flakes

2 cups apple juice

2 apples, sliced thin

pinch of sea salt

1.   In a saucepan, bring water and kanten flakes to a boil on a    

      medium flame. Reduce flame to medium low, simmer until                       

      kanten flakes dissolve completely, stirring often.

   2.   Add apple juice, apples, and a pinch of sea salt.

   3.   Over medium flame, bring back to a boil, reduce flame to  

         medium low, and simmer for 10 minutes.  

   4.   Transfer kanten to heat resistant glass container and let cool

         to set.

   5.   Serve at room temperature or chilled.

     Some other dietary recommendations we incorporated were: brown rice with lotus seeds, millet with cauliflower, scallion miso condiment, and plenty of blanched green leafy vegetables. In addition, the following remedies helped tremendously:

Internal Remedies: hot kukicha (with the option of a little umeboshi and/or ginger juice), hot water with lemon juice  

External Remedies: kukicha with sea salt for gargling, eye wash, and nasal wash. Gargling can be done up to five times per day. Doing a nasal wash with a neti pot was very relieving after smoke exposure. A body scrub is a good part of any macrobiotic practice, and especially helpful during periods of heavy exposure to smoke

     Hopefully we won’t find ourselves “smoked-in” next year and beyond. But according to most prevailing climate models, we likely will. Hence, developing a tool chest of remedies and dietary adjustments within our macrobiotic practice to meet the challenges that come along with heavy smoke exposure seems to be a new part of life as a Californian. Communities across the globe face a host of similar threats. Our adaptability, our ability to change with the seasons and nature as a whole, has been a key element in macrobiotic practice. Dealing with the growing volatility of weather and climate, we can call upon this ability to adapt to nature’s changes as an indispensable tool for dealing with newly developing inhospitable conditions.          ¨    

     Sachi Kato, chef and co-author of The One Peaceful World Cookbook, her husband, Travis Bench (who assisted with writing this article), and their 19-month-old son, Kota, are a San Francisco-based macrobiotic family. All of them, including Kota, enjoy macro food daily.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *