“Where’s all the smoke coming from?”
It was my co-worker Samuel on the phone. I blinked at the clear blue Oregon sky and scanned the horizon. I didn’t see any smoke.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at home, in Talent,” he replied in his Kenyan accent.
“Oh,” I said. I was working that day on the hay farm, some ten miles southeast of the tourist town of Ashland, where I lived. Talent was one town away, farther north up the scenic Rogue River Valley.
“Let me try to get a look in your direction.” I took the four-wheeler up the driveway to a better vantage point and looked up the valley. There was the smoke, a light gray billowing cloud. It looked like it was coming from Ashland.
After hanging up, I immediately called my girlfriend Diane, who was at our home in Ashland.
“Do you see smoke?” I asked.
No, she didn’t. The fire must have been north of her, which was a good thing, for us. That day the wind was blowing to the north, so we wouldn’t be threatened by the fire, unless the wind changed direction.
Samuel and his family, and the other residents of Talent, Oregon, were not as fortunate.
So far, it had been a mild fire season. We’d made it to early September without our valley being choked by wildfire smoke, which began some years in July and could last for weeks or months. The blessing of the autumn rains was almost here. But, at the same time, the vegetation in southern Oregon, and indeed much of the West Coast, had been steadily drying out all summer, especially on the multiple 100 degree days that we’d had. The vegetation was bone dry and ready to rage with wildfire. Given the opportunity, given a spark.
This day, September 8th, 2020, was a Red Flag Warning day, meaning that conditions were ideal for wildfires to spread due to a combination of hot weather, dry conditions, and strong winds. This meant that if a wildfire began, there’d be little hope of containing it. On Red Flag Days firefighters often focus their efforts on evacuating people in the path of the fire, instead of extinguishing fires.
I told Diane I’d be home soon for lunch, after finishing a little more work.
My phone rang again. This time it was another coworker, Brian, who’d already left the farm for lunch. “I just drove through flames,” he said. There was another fire, this time a vehicle fire, near the side of the road on the highway between the farm and Ashland.
For the first time that day, I felt scared.
If that fire took off—and I didn’t see why it wouldn’t, given the weather conditions—then I’d be cut off from Ashland, cut off from Diane and home. I rushed around, tying up loose ends and preparing to leave the farm. (My boss called in the midst of my frenzy and we spoke briefly. Later that day, I could barely recall whether that conversation had actually taken place or not.)
I got in my car and began driving home, watching ahead for the presence of fire. I spotted fire trucks and then the blackened, burned-out shell of a van. To my great relief, the vehicle fire had been put out by a quick firefighter response before it ignited the dry grasses, oaks, and rosebushes of the Emigrant Lake Recreation Area that bordered Ashland to the south.
I made it home for lunch, once passing a long line of cars backed up at a stop sign, poised to evacuate Ashland to the south. From internet searches at home we learned that the fire burning in north Ashland was heading north at an unstoppable rate, spurred on by strong winds. People were fleeing.
I had been living in Ashland since June 2012. In my first years in Oregon, wildfire smoke came into our valley each summer, but it was usually smoky for only a few days or a week before clearing. Just a part of living in the West, where fire was an integral part of the ecology of the landscape. In more recent years, as the planet continued heating up, the hazardous smoke could confine you indoors for weeks at a time. No outdoor BBQs, no kids’ baseball games, no trips to the river to swim. Wildfire season in southern Oregon—July, August, September—had become a sort of house arrest. Even then, if the smoke was bad enough or your house drafty enough, its tendrils could find you inside your home.
By the next morning, the Almeda Fire—as the fire was named whose smoke Samuel had phoned about—had burned 2,800 structures in Ashland, Talent, and the town of Phoenix farther north. At least three people perished in the fire. It came on the heels of other recent horrific fires in the region.
In 2014, the Boles Fire burned through the town of Weed, CA, destroying 150 residences and forcing the evacuation of 1,500 people. One person was injured. In 2018, the Camp Fire ripped through Paradise, CA, killing at least 85 individuals and destroying more than 18,000 structures. Most of the Camp Fire damage happened within four hours.
In 2017, I had heard about someone’s parents in Napa Valley, CA, who had to plunge into their backyard swimming pool to escape the wildfire heat. In the Napa and surrounding area wildfires of 2017, 44 people died and 9,000 buildings burned.
Samuel and his family had to evacuate to a friend’s place in Medford. Their home survived, and eventually they could return. Other friends lost everything in the conflagration.
Over the next couple of days, the state of Oregon burned. Nine hundred thousand acres—more land than typically burned in the state all year—burned in a 48-hour time period. (For comparison, about 200,000 acres burned each year in Oregon on average from 1992 to 2001, although the number of acres burned per year in Oregon has been steadily increasing.) The Beachie Creek Fire east of Salem burned at a rate of three football fields every second. It claimed four lives, including a boy in a car who died with his dog in his lap.
This is climate change. It is here. It is deadly. It is hot. It is caused by human activity that releases heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons into the atmosphere.
The year 2020 came in just behind 2016 as the hottest year on record since robust temperature measurements began in 1880. The ten hottest years in order from 1880 to 2020 are as follows:
2013 and 2005 (tied)
As hot as last year was, you and I may soon wish for a year as “cool” as 2020. Most of the rest of the years of our lives will be hotter.
Over the next days, Diane and I tracked the air quality in our region as fires burned around us. The air pollution ticked up. From healthy (0-50 rating on the Air Quality Index), to moderate (51-100), to unhealthy for sensitive groups (101-150), to unhealthy (151-200), to very unhealthy (201-300), to hazardous (301+). It eventually hit levels in the 500s. It seeped into our house so that our bedroom at night smelled like a campfire.
We pulled up a smoke map of the region and looked for relief. The closest areas of moderate air quality were more than a three-hour drive away. Everything nearby was blanketed in smoke. We noticed that the town of Bandon on the Oregon Coast was projected to have moderate air quality. It represented a thin sliver of relief in a Brobdingnabian miasma of toxic air that stretched across our state. We decided to go for it.
Packing up our small dog and donning heavy duty face masks, we drove 3 ½ hours through apocalyptic scenes of continuous thick smoke. Even with the masks, we had headaches from the smoke. The dog coughed during the drive. As we approached Bandon, it appeared just as smoky as anywhere else. We rolled down the windows and took a sniff. There was some relief. The air had more coastal fog than smoke, even though it looked the same. There was freshness in the air, and we could breathe.
I recently moved away from the West, prior to the 2021 wildfire season. I’m fortunate in that I have other places I can call home, being originally from the Midwest. For many people, the West is the only home they’ve known. And it is changing fast.
The town of Ashland where I lived was once a paradise. It is a still a great place to live, ten to eleven months out of the year. But the wildfire threat now looms over the summer, both due to the hazardous smoke and the threat of the flames themselves. Also, the snowpack has steadily decreased, such that once dependable wintertime activities in the nearby Siskiyou and Cascade mountains are now uncertain.
More stories like mine about the devastation from a changing climate will be told in the coming years and decades as the planet continues to warm. The best way to achieve the systemic change we need to safeguard our future is by electing legislators who are scientifically literate and beholden to truth and transparency.
For the continued livability of our towns, every election counts. More than many people realize.