Lindsay Schnell USA TODAY
Published 10:42 PM EDT Sep 14, 2020
Thousands of people impacted by severe fires in southern Oregon and northern California could get some relief in the coming days. If the weather cooperates.
Fires have ravaged the West over the last week, decimating small communities and destroying hundreds of homes. While a longer, hotter, more destructive fire season has become the norm on the West Coast, the last week was notable because of the number of fires blazing in urban areas, threatening what were previously considered “safe” communities.
It is particularly bad in Oregon, where more than 1 million acres are burning statewide. Ten deaths have been reported, and two small towns have been wiped out close to the state’s border with California.
Rich Tyler has worked in firefighting for more than two decades. He’s never seen anything this bad.
“This is a tragedy, what’s occurred across the entire state of Oregon,” said Tyler, working on behalf of the Oregon Fire Marshal’s Office as the spokesman for the Almeda Fire. “We’ve had large fires, but not ones that have impacted this many communities and people all at one time.”
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Reminders of devastation are everywhere: Buildings and cars burnt to a crisp, piles of ash where businesses once stood. Perhaps worst of all, hazardous smoke is choking the entire coast, forcing people to stay inside.
Clarissa Carson, a lifelong resident of southern Oregon, said she’s desperate for “just one day of blue sky — but we’re only gonna get that with wind, and we don’t want wind!”
Look closely, though, and there are positives to be found in in both states.
As of Monday afternoon, the Slater and Devil fires in the Klamath National Forest in northern California, which have burned more than 136,000 acres and led to the evacuation of 3,500 people, were only 5% contained.
But officials can find the silver linings: the evacuation order for Happy Camp, California, a town of about 1,200, was reduced to an evacuation warning, and the focus has shifted from protection of life and structures to a “bigger containment strategy” according to Adrienne Freeman, the interagency public information officer.
“That’s a really good thing,” Freeman said. “Because we’re at a point now where we can be more strategic.”
Though air quality remains hazardous (it registered at over 430 in Happy Camp late Monday afternoon), Freeman said they haven’t heard anything about heavy winds, which played a role in the West’s rapidly spreading fires. While the temperature inversion makes it challenging for aircraft to drop fire retardant, the positive is that it creates a more humid environment.
It’s too early, Freeman said, to speculate on containment dates or percentages but “I think if we see stable air, we’ll continue to get containment lines down.” Labeling herself “realistic,” Freeman said that so long as the weather pattern stays consistent, “we’ll have opportunities to do good work.”
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Farther north, a lot of good work has already been done by crews in Medford, Oregon, battling to contain the Almeda Fire, which ravaged the small towns of Talent, population 6,500, and Phoenix, population 4,600.
The fire has impacted more than 42,000 people and destroyed at least 700 structures, including 600 homes. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and many residents remain without power or running water.
But that fire is now 70% contained, according to Tyler, of the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office — though it’s important to remember, he said, that fire containment with an urban setting is dramatically different than with wildland fire.
Containing an urban fire involves not just reducing flames but mitigating hazards inside the urban space, which includes venting natural gas lines, as well as dealing with debris, unstable structures and downed power lines. Crews have done that with 70% of the area, aided by the arrival of Utah Taskforce 1, an Urban Search and Rescue team that’s going through the entire fire area to assess structural damage potential fire hazards.
“Unaffected areas and neighborhoods, we’re letting people back in, they deserve to go home,” Tyler said, adding that the local sheriff’s office has been escorting some people back to their homes so they can grab valuables before leaving for alternate shelter again.
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Three people have died in the Almeda Fire but, according to authorities, everyone who was initially reported missing in the fire zone is now accounted for. There are still 48 firefighters and 12 engines working the fire, and 24 members of the National Guard are on the ground helping control traffic. At least 50 more National Guard members are expected in town Tuesday.
Still, the toll of what they’ve lost is just starting to dawn on community members.
On Monday, Carson, 43, an ICU nurse at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, spent her lunch hour recounting dozens of heartbreaking conversations with colleagues over the last week.
“Can you hear me OK?” she asked. “We’ve got a big air blower set up in the ICU to keep the smoke out, and it’s kind of loud.”
Carson’s home is still standing, but she knows dozens who aren’t as fortunate.
Carson is a Medford native — she works now at the hospital where she was born — and has spent most of the last week consumed by the fires: Talking about them (“how many do you know who lost everything?”), thinking about them (“is this hazardous air quality going to have a long-term impact on my daughter?”), dealing with the choking smoke from them (“my allergies are out of control, I’m in a constant state of sickness”) and consoling friends and colleagues who have lost everything (“I’m glad I can be there for them, but what do you say?”)
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Last week, when the fire forced Rogue Regional to evacuate its ICU patients, a colleague turned to Carson and told her, “I think my house might be burning down right now.” Then she went back to work, prepping patients who needed to leave immediately.
“It feels like a war zone,” Carson said. “To this community, it’s like Armageddon. And the smoke really impacts that feeling, because you can’t escape it.” Everyone is worried — about friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Winter is coming, she said, and the housing shortage is going to be real.
And as Carson and her colleagues work care for patients, they’re dealing with their own ailments, from burning eyes and scratchy throats to crippling migraines and endless coughing. That’s just the lingering physical impact.
“We’ve reached burnout,” Carson said. “Terror burnout.”
Published 10:42 PM EDT Sep 14, 2020