The State of Oregon is facing a natural catastrophe that its emergency services had only seen on television and that anticipates long-term changes
The first sign was that “the sun was off,” recalls Yolanda Curiel. It was Tuesday, September 8, shortly after 11 a.m. There was a lot of wind blowing. “Ashes fell from the sky.” Curiel was at her manufactured home in Phoenix, a hamlet south of the city of Medford, in southeastern Oregon. She went on an errand to the bank with her young daughters in the car. She left her adolescent children, ages 17 and 14, at home. At two in the afternoon, when she tried to return, the police did not let her. She called her children to come to her, skipped the police deployment, they left the house with their clothes on. Just an hour later, her life project had burned.
When Medford firefighters recall those hours, their account often contains expressions such as “unprecedented” and “never seen.” The fire started next to a creek that runs outside Medford and runs through two neighborhoods called Phoenix and Talent. It moved through the river like in a tunnel, driven by wind gusts of 80 kilometers per hour. Firefighters say the wind was drying the trees and brush, like a hair dryer, before the flames hit, preparing them to explode in seconds. That same wind bent the fire so that it had a forward flamethrower effect. The fire traveled 21 kilometers between 11 in the morning and 2 in the morning, until they managed to stop it.
Three people died. 600 houses were burned, mostly poor homes of migrant workers who settled here to collect pears, peaches and grapes from the area. The Curiel, immigrants from Nayarit, had bought that trailer for $ 20,000, saved by cleaning houses and fixing gardens. “We had spent $ 45,000 to turn it into a real house. When we went out, we went up a mountain to see the fire. My husband said that the trees were burning, but I told him no, no, it was our house ”. Just remembering those words does he start to cry. He is with his children in a makeshift shelter mounted on the Medford Fairgrounds wastelandalong with hundreds of their neighbors set up in tents. They only have the clothes they were wearing that day and the cash they got from the bank.
“These are things that we saw on television because they happened to our neighbors to the south, in California,” said Gary Leaming, Oregon Emergency spokesman for this fire. “I have lived here 22 years and this is unprecedented.” This area of the state experiences hot days and can be dry. But the combination of strong wind, extreme dryness and heat has never been like this year, firefighters say. “These are not fires, they are firestorms,” says Leaming.
It’s not just Medford. It is the entire State of Oregon that has never seen anything like it. The latest figures say that more than 400,000 hectares in the State, double the annual average in the last decade. Eight people have died and 12 are missing. More than 3,900 are living in shelters. More than 1,600 houses have burned down. Last weekend, up to 40,000 people had to evacuate their homes due to sudden and rapid fires. More than 500,000 were living under evacuation alert at any one time, especially in and around Portland. Time has given a few days of respite, but the Emergency Office does not expect this critical situation change until it doesn’t rain. Gov. Kate Brown has warned that this summer may see the greatest loss of life and homes in Oregon history due to fires.
As of Wednesday, 29 large fires were still burning at once in Oregon. Some, in places that normally have the climatic conditions of a rainforest, such as the Tilamook State Forest, according to the spokesperson for Emergencies in Salem, Bobbi Doan. “This is a fire situation like nothing we have seen in a generation. It is undeniable that the severity, complexity and duration of the fire season is increasing ”.
For the Government of Oregon, and the general consensus of the scientific community, climate change is the undeniable context that has left a humid and wooded state at the mercy of fire as if it were Southern California. In Medford, for example, the annual average in this area is 482 millimeters of rain per year. In recent years the average has dropped to 254, explains Gary Leaming. The cause of each fire may be fortuitous and is under investigation, but the tragedy is no accident. “This type of fire was being prepared.”
“Forecasters had been warning that there is less and less snow in the winter, which contributes to conditions like the ones we saw that morning,” acknowledges Bob Horton, one of the fire marshals in the county where Medford is located. “Any start of fire would have been a challenge.” For Horton, with 20 years of experience, these are exactly the “wind fires” (a technical term that distinguishes a fire driven by the wind, from one that advances at the rate of how long it takes to burn wood) of California, but throughout the West.
10% of Oregon’s population is living this summer with a fire near their home. The rest of the state, all over the West Coast, is breathing the consequences. Air quality is at dangerous levels for health in places like Portland, a city surrounded by water and forests that last weekend had the worst air quality in the United States. “In five Oregon cities, we’ve had the worst particulate levels ever,” confirms Dylan Darling, an expert with the Oregon Office of Environmental Quality. “A particle level pm2.5 of 300 is dangerous to health. It has reached at least 500, which is the maximum of the monitors ”. Such a situation is already dangerous when it lasts a few hours or days. “This has been going on like this for two weeks,” warns Darling. The plume of smoke is already so large that it has reached the east coast.
In places like Medford, where there has also been extensive destruction of homes, that cloud can be toxic. Nobody knows what is in the dense and stinking white cloud that has covered the entire city for a week. Very humble houses were burned, in which it is not strange that there are chemicals or even asbestos.
Firefighters often shy away from the climate change debate. It is not your job. But they make their fear that this is the new normal very clear. “I’m not the right person to say what’s going to happen,” says Fire Chief Horton. “But it worries me, and what is happening in Oregon has to be discussed at the local, state and national level. The dynamics of fire is changing and we have to adapt ”. The California fires are already the fires of the entire West.