AQI: Hazardous

Outside, the air is filled with smoke and ash
So thick the nearby mountains can’t be seen;
Bright red and purple colors on the map
Warn that the air we breathe’s no longer clean.

In San Jose, the current AQI
(Air Quality, an Index I now know)
Stands at a hazardous 195 –
Without a mask, outside we should not go.

Some schools have closed, and some keep kids indoors,
For outside air presents potential threats –
Particulates that lodge inside our lungs,
Like smoking half a pack of cigarettes.

The town of Paradise has been destroyed,
More than ten thousand homes and buildings burned;
Survivors had to flee, while close behind,
The deadly fire toward them raced and churned.

So many tragic losses, dreadful tales –
Of missing family members, injured pets,
All worldly goods and photos turned to char,
Scenes of destruction no one soon forgets.

A thousand still are missing, maybe dead;
Evacuation centers overflow.
While others have, at Walmart, pitched their tents,
No money left, not knowing where to go.

Considering the pain so many face,
I can’t complain too much about the air –
Across the state, vast numbers suffer worse,
Deserving much more sympathy and prayer.

Like hurricanes, each fire bears a name,
The Camp and Woolsey currently the worst.
Like tyrants, they’ve no mercy in their rage;
Instead of blood, for trees and homes they thirst.

While thousands from those towering flames retreat,
Heroic firefighters face them down,
Each risking life and limb as, weapons raised,
They battle to preserve life, tree, and town.

These natural disasters, strong and wild,
Remind us there are limits to our power –
Not even fame nor riches can protect
From conflagration seeking to devour.

They also, though, reveal our human strength,
For though we suffer loss, we persevere –
We hug our loved ones tight, roll up our sleeves,
And steel ourselves from giving in to fear.

We look for ways to help out those in need –
Donating money, clothes, and blankets, too.
The best of our humanity shines forth
As people look for helpful things to do.

And so, I pray for those who’ve suffered loss,
For those still seeking news of those they love,
For cleaner, healthy air for all to breathe,
And that soon raindrops fall from up above.


Tonya McQuade is an English teacher at Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos, CA, and lives with her husband in San Jose, CA. She has been writing poetry since fourth grade and is currently a member of Poetry Center San Jose. She has been published in’s America at the Millennium: The Best Poems and Poets of the 20th Century, Pushpen Press’s Three: An Anthology of Flash Non-Fiction, and California Teacher Association’s digital California Educator. 

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14 Responses

    • Tonya McQuade

      Thank you. There have been so many heart-breaking stories, but so many uplifting stories as well.

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Your well-thought and well-expressed poem begs for one small word to be added at the end.


    • Tonya McQuade

      Yes – prayers are certainly appreciated for California right now, esp. for those who have lost so much. If people want to help out, one great way is through the North Valley Community Foundation:

  2. Mark Stone

    Tonya, Hello.

    1. In S2L2, I like how you were able to deftly fit “Air Quality Index” into iambic meter.

    2. S4L1&2 read as follows:

    The town of Paradise has been destroyed,
    More than ten thousand homes and buildings burned;

    The second line does work. However, for some reason, I want to put the emphasis on “more” rather than on “than.” Perhaps because every time I see the word “More,” I think of the 1964 Andy Williams hit song titled “More.” But I digress. Here is what I would do with that line:

    The town of Paradise has been destroyed,
    Ten thousand plus of homes and buildings burned;

    That maintains the iambic meter, plus you would get vertical alliteration in that the fourth syllable of each line would start with the same consonant.

    3. S9L4 reads as follows: “They battle to preserve life, tree, and town.” I just like the sound of this line.

    4. S10L3 reads as follows: “Not even fame nor riches can protect.” I thought that maybe the “nor” should be an “or” and did some Internet research, but could not find anything to support that position.

    5. I really like the final line of the poem, since it expresses a feeling of hope.

    6. The poem is very well constructed in terms of meter, rhyme and message. Well done!

    • Monty

      Regarding your 2nd point above, Mark: it’s just occurrd to me how notable the difference must be between UK-english and US-english in the syllabic-stress of certain words.

      In line 2: you were contesting whether the first word, ‘more’, or the 2nd word, ‘than’, should be stressed; but in UK-english, the first stressed-syllable would fall on the third word, ‘ten’!
      If we could forget for a moment that those 2 lines are in a poem . . the normal speech-pattern in UK-english would stress the following syllables: ‘the TOWN of PAradise has been deSTROYED.. more than TEN thousand HOMES and BUILDings BURNED.

      This may be the reason why I sometimes stumble over the ‘beat’ in certain poems on these pages . . . even though they’re probably metrically correct.

      I’d be interested to see where you’d place ALL the stressed syllables in the entire 2 lines . . .

    • Tonya McQuade

      Thank you so much for your comments and insights! I like your suggestions and am just now reading them – for some reason, I did not get the notifications that additional comments had been posted. I had so many thoughts about the effects of the fire, I’ve now turned them into a song as well. If you are interested in listening, you can find it on Youtube – just search for “Phoenix,” by Tonya McQuade.

  3. Monty

    As it stands, line 9 reads: ‘Some schools have closed, and some (schools) keep kids indoors’.

    This could be rectified by, for example: ‘Some schools have closed, with some kids kept indoors’ . . or: ‘Some schools have closed, some mums keep kids indoors’.

  4. Damian Robin

    Death by Fire

    In fired fields where humans’ ashes flew
    With lax debris of animal and tree,
    Some charted hints will smoke out what they knew
    And who and how such things could come to be.

    Some may never find a funeral.
    Some will miss forensic integration.
    Most witness tears, exact and general,
    Will not be wiped by expert consultation.

    And when that’s done, specific though it be,
    Its findings cannot put into reverse
    The coin of commons and celebrity,
    The ruthless balancing of Karma’s purse.

    • Monty

      I see what you’re saying, Damian, about the ‘news-reader’ thing; but is it not the case with any nation that the speech-patterns of its news-readers should reflect that of its listeners/viewers?

      In 5 days time, I’m going away (to Asia) for 4 months, so I’m full-on at the moment with packing/getting things sorted, etc; hence I ain’t really got time for a more detailed study of the links you sent. But I had a quick peek at the wiki thing, and I got to a point where they were trying to tell me that Brit-English stresses the 1st syllable in ‘impregnate’, which is patently untrue . . we stress the 2nd. It was in with a list of other 3-syllable words in which we DO stress the 1st syllable (‘inculcate’ being one of them); but they’re wrong about ‘impregnate’. So, I looked no further.
      And the whiney voice on you-tube didn’t say anything that any of us didn’t already know.

      The French words don’t really count, ‘cos there seems to be an unwritten rule – on both sides of the pond – that when we borrow from the French, we pronounce their words as they themselves do.

  5. Cal Wes Ubideer

    First off, I enjoyed Ms. McQuade’s poem for several reasons:

    1. I wrote a poem printed elsewhere on the “same topic” without knowing she had written her poem. Forest fires are a topic I have written on before, as in previous fires in America (like last year’s California fires) and elsewhere across the globe, as, for example, in Australia. Those of us from the West are accustomed to these fires (I had to take a different route to get to my present address because of a large fire along the Columbia River in 2017. I hope Ms. McQuade will forgive me for including it below; but I would like to make some remarks about the comparison.

    2. Mr. Robin points out it’s rather like a “newsreader would read a news item”. That is exactly what I am striving for in my docupoetry—as if it would read like newsprint—giving it a factual power, and making it topical, as Mr. Behrens has pointed out.

    “In San Jose the current AQI
    (Air Quality, an Index I now know)
    Stands at a hazardous 195—
    Without a mask, outside we should not go.”

    Other than the final inversion and the parenthetical remark, these are lines that I admire. As an inhabitant of San Jose, her reaction to the air quality is decidedly visceral.

    3. Finally, she moves from herself to a greater generality. That is my MO, as can be seen in the occasional poems that pop up @ SCP.

    4. As a fellow Western American speaker, I follow Ms. McQuade’s iambic pentametres perfectly; even if I may disagree with single places here and there (as Mr. Stone and I do with my own poetry, etc.).

    The tówn of Páradíse has béen destróyed,
    More thán ten thoúsand hómes and buíldings búrned…”

    I do hope Ms. McQuade can appreciate the remarks of Mr. Stone. Though, of course, one can disagree with his “takes”, his remarks are a blessing to writers here @ SCP. By the way, I think those two lines are breathtaking for the alliteration, their largeness of vision, and their impersonality (not something she holds throughout the entire poem—nor desires to).

    5. Mr. Robin, as well, makes some informative points about accents, UK vs. US.

    6. Here was my original poem on the “same topic”.

    The Camp Creek Road Fire
    by Cal Wes Ubideer

    It started at sunrise, November 8, 6:33,
    the worst fire in the state of California history,
    near Camp Creek Road, near Pulga, California, county, Butte,
    beneath the power lines, P G & E, where it took root.
    First units on the scene observed the rapid growing flames;
    from low humidity and high winds, the destruction came.
    Immediately Paradise was told—Evacuate!
    The fire flew, and higher grew. There was no time to wait.
    And yet, some dozens died. The fire raged—a total rout.
    The winds that were predicted came and wiped the city out.

    Cal Wes Ubideer is a poet of California; Paradise is a city in northern California of over 25,000 residents.

    7. Notice Ms. McQuade’s poem is a longer, more fully developed poem; for her, the fire is much closer. She is in the poem herself; I am not—except peripherally. She evinces more compassion, and contemplates the agony. Our titles also show different foci. She uses an abcb rhyme pattern, whereas I simply use couplets. Some of her stanzas are breathtaking in their execution, as, for example, S6

    “A thousand still are missing, maybe dead;
    Evacuation centers overflow.
    While others have, at Walmart, pitched their tents,
    No money left, not knowing where to go.”

    In S6, she neatly brings up the likely fate of the missing. I really like L2 of S6 for several reasons, the fact behind it, the few words, only three, and the fine alleration. I also like the placement of Walmart in the poem, as well; it identifies our time with an “element” in it.. Lest I stack everything in Ms. McQuade’s poem’s favour vs. my own; I can at least note her poem is over 3.7 times longer syllabically; and so one would expect there to be a certain strength in her length.

    8. But having read more upon the fires, in addition to Ms. McQuade’s poem, I would like to revise my own poem, including the following, the fire’s speed, the weather science behind it, and Rob Elvington’s prescient tweet; but there are other issues too, and I have miles to go before I sleep.

    • Tonya McQuade

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, your kind words, and your own poem. I am just now seeing your comments (for some reason, I did not get notifications of new posts) and appreciate your insights. As I just mentioned in a comment above, I had so many thoughts about the effects of the fire, I’ve now turned them into a song as well. If you are interested in listening, you can find it on Youtube – just search for “Phoenix,” by Tonya McQuade.


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