West Coast wildfires: A letter to friends from an Oregon resident

oregon fire

We are in the midst of an unmitigated natural disaster here in Oregon and on the West Coast. I struggle to find the words to express what’s happening and the toll it’s taking – on our natural treasures, on homes and businesses, and on our collective psyches. People outside our region probably don’t grasp the magnitude of how massive and how serious it is. Many may even be unaware of what’s going on. I beseech you to pay attention, and to imagine yourself in such a situation. This is what climate change looks like, and something similar may be coming to you soon.

Multiple fires have burned almost one million acres in Oregon (that’s 1500 square miles, the size of Long Island, or the state of Rhode Island). The entire western half of the state from the Pacific Ocean to crest of the Cascade Mountains is under a column of smoke 6000 feet thick – that’s an area 125 miles wide by 300 miles long under a more than a mile thick cloud of smoke. The Air Quality Index has been over 600 for several days (300 is considered hazardous to health – not just unhealthy, but hazardous).

The sky over Salem and much of western Oregon has been red for several days, like a scene from Mars. Now it’s a sickly yellow-orange. It’s like nothing you have ever experienced. Ash and grit was “snowing” from the sky, coating cars and rooftops and grass and leaves a silvery-gray. Temperatures were forecast to be low- to mid-90s, for the week, but reached highs of 72 because of smoke blocking incoming solar. We can’t see large fir trees two blocks away. My wife only half-jokingly pondered whether this is somewhat what nuclear winter would be like.

Several towns have been obliterated in flames. Thousands of homes have been lost. The death toll has only begun to be counted. More than one in every ten Oregonians are under an evacuation order: Level 1 – Ready (be alert, stay tuned to news), Level 2 -Set (get packed and ready to leave), or Level 3 – Go Now. Tens or hundreds of thousands of lives have been turned upside down, scarred, and traumatized.

And that’s just Oregon. California may be in worse shape, with over 2 million acres ablaze. Another 500,000 acres are on fire in Washington state. The entire west coast, in other words, is literally on fire. And we’re only at the beginning of the normal fire season. (Fires in British Columbia burned 3 million acres a few years ago, but hardly anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest noticed because it was Canada and it was in the wilderness.) Remember, this is on top of COVID-19, which has heightened stress and complicated the response. And the damage will extend into winter as rains will wash unabsorbed into to our rivers, bringing floods and polluted drinking water.

California has had several large wildfires in the past several years. I remember images of the Camp Fire when the town of Paradise was destroyed, and the Tubbs Fire that destroyed whole neighborhoods in Santa Rosa. I remember vivid video clips of people driving through walls of flame. I was incredulous and sympathetic, but I couldn’t quite imagine what it was really like. Something like this might happen somewhere in dry places like California or Colorado, or even in arid central or eastern Oregon, but not here is “wet” western Oregon. While I knew climate change would eventually affect the forests of western Oregon and needed to be dealt with, I figured such conflagrations were still years away. I was safe. I was at a remove.

Now it has come here to us in Oregon. I feel the anxiety and stress of coping with the threat and the devastation. And we’re some of the safer and luckier ones. I still don’t know what it’s like to actually be evacuated from my home, much less to lose everything. I try to put myself in those shoes, but it’s not the same.

My wife and I are safe, at least for the time being. We’re 20 miles from the nearest fires – it would have to burn into and through Salem and jump the Willamette River to reach us (unless another a fire broke out closer to us, which is possible given the tinder dry conditions). We packed our car ready to go, just in case.

We have been worried about our son and his wife and two small children on the Oregon Coast. They are not under imminent fire danger, but fires are within 15 miles of them too. Moreover, the road to the coast between us is closed because of yet another fire, so we’re cut off from each other if something were to happen; in fact, our son has only one avenue of escape, and if something happens in that direction he and his family are trapped. It is a source of anxiety, and this is small potatoes compared to what many people are facing. In addition, we have former friends and co-workers who live in some of the towns burned in the Santiam Canyon outside of Salem. We are waiting to hear word about their fate.

We are among the lucky and privileged. We are safe, we have a decent air system in our home that filters out most of the smoke, and we have food and electricity (and internet) – unlike the many who have lost everything, been evacuated, or have already been living on the streets.

While you may be thankful that we’re okay, our safety is beside the point. I want you to understand what is going on. This is much larger than us. It is something that will affect you at some point – probably sooner than you think.

I ask you to put yourself in our shoes and in the shoes of those who are living through this disaster and are worse off than us. Imagine and understand at a deep level what it would like to live through something like this. Because this is what climate change looks like. Whether it is wildfires, increased tornado activity, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, more frequent and more severe flooding, extreme heat, longer and more persistent droughts, or a “derecho” – the new climate change-related phenomenon that devastated Iowa earlier this summer – you will probably experience these or similar effects sooner or later.

Imagine the eerie Mars-like red sky, and worrying that it mean the fire was getting closer. Imagine that your eyes and throat burn and you get short of breath just by going outside. Imagine listening to news of fires around you, encroaching on your city or neighborhood. Imagine getting yourself ready to leave. Imagine knowing you can’t reach your loved ones, that roads are closed and phone traffic is clogged. Sit and imagine those things, and more.

Then put yourself in the shoes of many of my fellow Oregonians much worse off than me. Imagine being told to “Go Now!” Imagine driving with flames on both sides of the road on your way out. And not knowing what is happening to your home while you’re gone. Or having to jump into a river for two hours to escape the flames, as some had to do on a moment’s notice because of the speed of the fires. Imagine the strenuous, hot, dirty, and life-threatening conditions the firefighters are dealing with to save you and your home. They have done an absolutely heroic job under the most dire circumstances – no less heroic than the first responders at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

And then imagine all this affecting half of your state and two neighboring states and 20-30 million people.

I’m asking you to do this, partly to understand that this is an American tragedy, not just a local one. I’m also asking you to do this to begin preparing yourself mentally for whatever kind of climate disaster your area may be subject to in the not-so-distant future.

I hate to compare this to 9/11, but I believe something of comparable magnitude is happening here. Not as many lives will be lost. But in terms of damage to our forests and natural systems, the number of lives impacted, the trauma, and the implications for the future, I believe it should affect us in a similar way.

Not only are we losing the heart of the natural beauty of Oregon, Washington, and California. We are losing billions of trees, which are the lungs of our planet. Trees take CO2 out of the atmosphere and produce the oxygen we breathe. And the impacts will be felt long after the fires have died out. Runoff from loss of tree cover will cause increased flooding, and clog riverways with sediment that will pollute our drinking water and destroy spawning areas for salmon and trout.

The fires are a clear and definitive signal that climate change is here, now, in its full fury. Don’t let anyone tell you different. If the West Coast conflagrations and the Iowa “derecho” aren’t enough to silence and shame climate deniers and skeptics … well, one can only wonder about them. We should be mourning this catastrophe nationally like we did the events of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. More importantly, we should all be saying “Basta! Enough! It is time to do something!”

For those who think the fires are part of a natural cycle, or were caused by arson, that is just a rationalization in lieu of accepting the reality of climate change. Certainly fires – including conflagrations – are part of the ecological cycle, and have helped shape the natural environment for eons. And arson may have been the proximate cause of a few of these particular fires. But these fires are unprecedented in size, coverage (several states), and ferocity. And it isn’t just this year; we have been experiencing more frequent and more severe fires over the past two decades.

Conditions are tinder dry. We haven’t had rain for several months. Like California, this has been going on for multiple years. Winter rains recharge moisture levels somewhat, but shorter winters and longer, hotter, and drier summers have shifted the balance to a drier climate regime. Over a period of years, the moisture content of the ground and of vegetation has gradually and significantly been reduced, to the point where things are bone dry. Then a unique weather pattern over the West Coast caused by changes in the jet stream (also due to a warming atmosphere) caused relative humidity to drop. All it took then was a spark to ignite a conflagration.

In addition to natural factors and accidents, stupidity and negligence (e.g., tossed cigarette butts, uncontained campfires, pyrotechnics at gender-reveal parties) undoubtedly were the spark that started some of the fires. However, as far as I know, arson is suspected in only one of the hundreds fires raging on the West Coast. But humans have been stupid and doing these things for years without causing this kind of damage – we have been able to contain the fires before they get this far out of control. Rather, climate change has made conditions ripe for the fire to explode so quickly and so massively.

This is a different Oregon compared to what it was when moved here in 1980. We now experience 30+ days per year above 90 degrees, with 5-10 days above 100; that compares to an average of 5 days above 90 during the 1980s and earlier decades. We go for four or five months without rain every year, compared to once every decade historically. We get heavier rainstorms in the winter with more flooding. Winter starts later and ends earlier; we get a dusting of snow every second or third year, instead of a few snowfalls every year. Stronger storm surges have eroded sections of our coastline. Our forests and recreation areas have been scarred by increased fire and beetle damage, caused by dry summer conditions. We’ve had numerous “once in a hundred year” weather events in the last few years, as have other parts of the nation. Two years ago our city water system was disabled for 4-6 weeks because of a poisonous algal bloom triggered by warmer than normal spring temperatures.

These things are not normal. There are too many of them, and it has gone on for too many years. Natural systems don’t change so fast and furiously by themselves. Something else is going on. And that something else is human-induced climate change. These trends and phenomenon are consistent with what’s happening globally; they are consistent with what has been projected by climatologists for many years, and they can be explained by climate physics.

We have entered a new era.

John Kaufmann worked on energy and climate issues for 35 years with the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information, Oregon Department of Energy, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He is retired and lives in Salem, Oregon. Full biography John Kaufmann worked with the Oregon Department of Energy for 29 years as a solar energy specialist, building codes specialist, manager of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, and as a senior policy analyst, helping to make Oregon a national leader. He then worked for two years as Senior Policy Analyst at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington. John received the Professional Achievement Award from the American Planning Association-Oregon for getting 26 jurisdictions in the Portland Metro Area to jointly adopt a set of solar orientation and solar rights ordinances, and received the 2009 Energy Manager of the Year Award from the Oregon Association of Professional Energy Managers for Lifetime Achievement. John is a Fellow with the Post Carbon Institute for his work with Portland’s Peak Oil Task Force. He has spoken about peak oil and climate change to numerous audiences around Oregon and the U.S. He is semi-retired as he consults, speaks, and writes on energy issues. Recent Publications Integrating Renewable Energy Requirements into Building Energy Codes. PNNL-20442. July, 2011. “Local Government in a Time of Peak Oil and Climate Change.” In Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century Sustainability Crises, edited by Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, Post Carbon Institute, 2010. Principal author, Descending the Oil Peak: Portland Peak Oil Task Force Report. 2006. http://www.portlandonline.com/osd/index.cfm?c=42894

Originally published by Resilience.org



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