Oregon wildfires of 2020

2020-09-08 Corvallis, Oregon, U.S.A. Uncommonly high and steady eastern winds blow smoke and ash from forest fires in the east to Corvallis. Olivia Denison walks home from a small neighborhood Spanish language learning pod while schools are closed for in-person attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Colors are not enhanced. Photo Credit and Copyright Aran (Ari) Denison 2020 All Rights Reserved.

After a couple of weeks of periodic dry lightning storms in the Cascades the sustained wind from the east on Sunday and Monday turned a number of spot fires into catastrophic monsters. Firefighters who were previously fighting small blazes were forced to evacuate any area in which they were working and quickly reorganized to help evacuate people and animals tens of miles away from the original fire. On Monday in Corvallis the air went from fairly ok to unbreathable in the matter of 15 to 20 minutes. On Tuesday and Wednesday the winds settled down, as did massive quantities of ash, and as the fires slowly switched from wind driven to fuel driven the fire boundary expansion slowed. At this time firefighters were able to successfully spot protect some structures in both the Holiday Farm and Santiam fires but were primarily helping with evacuations. On Thursday a new wind started up, only this time from the west moving east, bringing much ash back into the area for a second visit, and the fire crews shifted from evacuation to cutting fire lines to choke off fuel supplies to the fires. We have been unable to leave the house without dual canister P100 respirators (N/P95s don’t work well enough to keep our throats from tightening) and have watched evacuation zones move closer to Corvallis and Eugene as our vegetable garden wilts from lack of water and our lack of the courage to risk exposure to the toxic air.

   These fires are colossal. There are three/four (some are about the merge) fires that are larger than anything I have ever seen in Oregon. The two corridors and state highways through which I drive to reach recreational areas in central Oregon are almost completely on fire. Imagine driving east through the mountains for hours and having that entire area in flame. Imagine taking a turn halfway into that drive and driving for yet more hours through flame in any direction. Now imagine four fires of this size. It’s unfathomable how much gorgeous woodland has been destroyed. Places where I’ve been fishing with my dad, camping and climbing with friends, blueberry picking with my mom, road tripping with girlfriends who might be impressed by the scenery, stargazing on clear summer nights with old friends, waterfall hunting, swimming in secret swimming holes hidden by walls of old growth Douglas fir after a long day climbing, mushroom hunting, mountaineering, and where I have taken thousands of photographs are mostly burnt to ash. I’ve been watching it happen via real-time maps that show infrared fires with numbers indicating the hundreds of megawatts of energy radiating from thousands of individual hot spots.

   Fire has always been a part of forest ecology, and forests regrow beautifully after they burn, but there are few words to describe what has been lost in Oregon in just a few days.

   We are safe. We think. There is little chance that the fires will reach our neighborhood even if the winds turn against us. We have miles of bare or newly planted farmland between us and the flames, and we have rivers, though we would surely lose thousands of cottonwoods if the flames get too close. Eugene and Springfield to the south are at substantial risk and many small communities to the east simply no longer exist.