Disaster-Prone Oregon: As if 100 Nights of Rioting Weren’t Bad Enough

Current humidity is 10%, and the forecast is for 100-degree heat and “historically high winds.”* Today dawned red; the red turned to gray; and ash is falling like snowflakes. Even indoor air is smoky, nauseating, and congesting, and twilight lingers all day. Outside air has gone from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” to “hazardous.” Our shrubs, patio, and walkways lie beneath a thick layer of ash. Many rural areas have lost power, and five towns have burned to the ground.

When Peggy and I moved to Oregon in 1986, mountain real estate was in high demand, but now that global warming has melted glaciers and ever-worsening fires have turned rural idylls into death traps (Trump claims that the fire problem is caused by Democrats), the cautious have grown even more cautious. I live in the heart of a metro area of 300,000, so if I die in a natural disaster, it is unlikely to be a forest fire but rather the +9 Great Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. These quakes hit an average of every 246-years, the last one occurring 320-years ago at 9:00 p.m. on January 26, 1700 (the time and date have been determined from Japanese records of when the resultant tsunami hit Japan). Had the threat posed by the Cascadia Subduction Zone been known when Peggy and I moved to Oregon in 1986, we would have gone elsewhere.

There have been numerous small quakes during our time here (one of which caused extensive damage to the state capitol), but they were along local faults while the Cascadia fault extends from California, through Oregon, through Washington, and through British Columbia before finally ending in Alaska. It is expected that Coastal communities will be completely flattened by the quake before being washed out to sea seven minutes later. Because the Coast is squeezed between mountains and ocean, few roads run east so there will be little chance of escape. Being sixty miles inland and 200-400 feet above sea level, the Willamette Valley won’t be swept out to sea, but setting atop hundreds of feet of Ice Age rubble will still mean major disaster, but back to fire-related news....

Peggy has a friend named Sandy who lives twenty miles from town and next door to the Willamette National Forest. A woman of more than average means, Sandy has spent forty-five years of her life and an enormous amount of money in building a world-class clothing button collection. The closer the fires get, the more Sandy worries, but because her husband pooh-poohs her worry, no steps are being taken to move their belongings to safety. Yesterday, the fire department toured Sandy’s property in preparation for using it as a staging area.

Throughout the day, TV programs are being interrupted by fire-related news, and evacuation orders are constantly scrolling across the bottom of the screen. The smoke is so thick that flame retardant can’t be dropped from planes or helicopters, and five towns have thus far burned to the ground. All the firefighters in the world couldn’t slow a fire that is moving too fast to approach. Peggy heard on the news that the nearest fire jumped thirteen miles in one night, but I can’t imagine that it’s true.

Volcanoes. Oregon has four volcanoes that the USGS characterize as “very high risk.” The one nearest Eugene is the 10,358-foot South Sister, which, despite being seventy miles away, can be seen from town. The South Sister has a bulge that has grown nine inches since its discovery in 1997. Because the prevailing winds blow away from Eugene, the worst likely danger would come from watershed destruction, Eugene’s water coming from the McKenzie River, which originates near the South Sister. (Because the McKenzie flows through the worst of the fires, Eugene's water tastes bad).

Landslides. These are only a problem in the wet season and usually along the Coast, where they sometimes close the only north-south highway (US 101, aka El Camino Real) for months, it being too dangerous to move a landslide that won’t stop sliding. Obviously, people occasionally die, and the only way out is sometimes by helicopter.

Friday Afternoon Fire Update. Another filthy day of coughing, nausea and daylong twilight, but, unless The Big One hits, we probably won’t end the day homeless in a school parking lot. By noon on Monday, the winds are expected to shift.

Friday Night Fire Update: 40% of Oregonians have been told to prepare for evacuation, and another 10% have already evacuated.

* Since I started writing this three days ago, the winds have dissipated, and the daytime highs have dropped by 25-degrees (the area being prone to temperature fluctuations), but the fires just keep getting bigger and more numerous. In California, things are even worse, but things are too bad here for me to worry much about
how things are down there.

** Friday Night Fire Update: 40% of Oregonians have been told to prepare for evacuation, and another 10% have already evacuated. s a link to local fire news and photos: https://www.registerguard.com/story/news/2020/09/10/holiday-farm-fire-frequently-asked-questions/5767238002/


Elephant's Child said...

Sadly I am all to familiar with hazardous air brought about by fires burning out of control. And the layer of ash and grit.
Please keep up posted.
And yes, fires can move thirteen miles over night.

ellen abbott said...

my brother lives in Camas, just across the river from Portland and he's reporting air quality as hazardous, orange tints to everything, and the nasty air creeping inside. I'll take a hurricane over a wildfire any day. of course both are getting more and more intense.

Andrew said...

The fires in Oregon are made all the more personal for me by you and Strayer living in the state. We down under do understand.

Starshine Twinkletoes said...

Oh no, absolute nightmare, I mailed you yesterday after hearing about it. Keep me posted, I so hope you can stay at home. I know it was terribly grim for Helga when they had fires after fires. Stay safe, it's good the cats stay in. Xxx

Kranhu said...

It is a nightmare! We have the furnace fan on 24/7 recirculating air through our flimsy air filter but it helps. We live close to the Chehalem Mountain fire, too.(Wilsonville) We moved out of Portland the end of Feb. There is a curfew in Clackamas county and we are at level one in evacuation

Kranhu said...

a map of fires in my area of the state


Starshine Twinkletoes said...

How awful for you Kris, thanks for the map, Snow's link won't open here, I can't imagine how grim it must be having to evacuate, especially if you haven't before. I'm worried about Snow and Peggy.

kylie said...

I'm so sorry this is happening, it's all so distressing.
I hope you stay safe

Tom at Sightings said...

Sorry to hear all this; it must be awful. My sister was planning to brave Covid and drive up from Phoenix to Seattle to visit her grown son. But then the smoke and the fires. Apparently some of the roads are even closed. So she's staying home, which is saying something since Phoenix is pretty brutal itself. It seems all we can say to one another these days is: stay home, be safe, and count whatever blessings you have.

Emma Springfield said...

I have been watching the news about the fire. I lived for a short time just outside of Spokane. Please stay safe.

Sue in Italia/In the Land Of Cancer said...

Yikes! I hear plenty of stuff about California's many fires but not so much about Oregon and I assume Washington. Michigan is sounding pretty good despite the occasional tornado which we are spared due to our forests and hills immediately around us. So awful, the loss of life and property! And the threat of its possible encroachment. I wish you well. Where would you go if you have to escape? Is the coast 'better'?

Snowbrush said...

Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and personal stories. Air quality is rated hazardous when particulate levels reach 301, and the same rating remains no matter how much higher the the level goes. On Friday, particulate levels in the Eugene area reached 807. They're now said to be at 519, although here at my house, today is the worst day yet. Kylie, Andrew, and Elephant's Child (my Australian readers), as bad as things are here, your fires were, perhaps, worse in terms of their effects on wildlife, and because wildlife are the victims of our crimes, my sympathies lie primarily with them. I don't know how many people have now died in Oregon's fires, but even if the number tops a hundred, it will be minimal compared to the suffering of wildlife.

How unexpected that it would take bad air to end the Portland riots, but at least they're over, for now anyway.

Snowbrush said...

PS to Tom: "My sister was planning to brave Covid and drive up from Phoenix to Seattle to visit her grown son. But then the smoke and the fires. Apparently some of the roads are even closed."

Yes, some main highways are closed, and flights are having trouble getting in and out-- current visibility is at 300 feet. Obviously, it's not even safe to drive in such an environment, and then there's the unpleasantness and health risks associated with breathing air that is being compared to 20 packs of cigarettes a day.

PhilipH said...

I sincerely hope that you, Peggy and your lovely moggies are still as safe as possible in this perilous situation. The tv reports tell us a fair bit about what's going on around the area but your post gives a much more personal and vivid account. My thoughts are with you Snowy. Stay as safe as you can, dear friend.

Winifred said...

I hadn't heard about the fires in your area, it's mainly California that gets a mention on the news here in the UK.

Crumbs those pesky Democrats, maybe Trump will blame them for the Covid - 19 problem too!

I hope things improve soon for you all, take care & God bless.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Snowy, we’ve been socked in with ash for days from the Bobcat fire. The good news is everyone is wearing a mask!

angela said...

Fire strikes terror in hearts here as well
It’s all too familiar for us
Stay safe and we hope it cools down enough to give those fighting the fires a chance

Snowbrush said...

Thanks again everyone for your concern and empathy. We're ten days into the smoke, and Peggy and I are finding it increasingly difficult to clear our throats, plus we're being awakened at night by the smoke. The arrival of coastal winds that would blow the smoke away from populated areas was wrongly forecast for first Monday and then Tuesday. The prediction is now for Thursday afternoon. I've learned that mortality rates from flus and pneumonias are higher during the winter following major fires due to the lingering of particles in people's lungs. Yesterday, Oregon smoke reached America's east coast. Today, it is in parts of Europe. Some of those who were evacuated here have returned home to find their houses burglarized, and the fear of burglary--and of contracting Covid--is causing some residents to refuse evacuation orders.

Trump visited California on Monday where for the umpteenth time he denied the reality of global warming and blamed major fires on the poor forest management practices of Democratic governors, this despite the fact that major fires primarily occur on federally owned lands over which state governors have no control. To demonstrate that he isn't entirely negative, he offered his own, three-part, solution to forest fires: (1) Clear forests of fallen leaves; (2) Clear forests of fallen trees; (3) Clear forests of undergrowth. I have no idea if Trump really thinks that these proposals are doable given the vastness of Western forests combined with the ruggedness of the land, much of which is in canyons. It's also true, of course, that such measures would rob the forests of nutrients depriving wildlife of food and shelter.

Much of what Trump says is so stupid that you or I would be laughed at if we said it, but he has too much power for anyone to be amused. Imagine, for example, the reaction you or I would get if we proposed that thousands of square miles of forest be raked (or perhaps, he meant vacuumed, or, perhaps, he didn't really know what he meant), or that bleach be taken internally to kill Covid (whether by drinking it or having it injected through an IV, I'm not sure). What, then, is one to conclude about the intelligence of Trump's devotees?

I assume that many really are as stupid as he, but I also assume that a great many people see him for what he is but support him anyway because they imagine that they will somehow benefit. For example, they're rich and he has given tax breaks to the wealthy; they own factories, and Trump is intent on abolishing any and all regulations that were instituted to protect people from fraud while safeguarding health and the environment; or they "love the Lord," and Trump favors turning America into a theocracy (with himself in charge); or they worship their assault rifles, and Trump wouldn't care if bazookas were legalized if doing so would enable him to govern for "twelve more years" (a number that would put him on par with Franklin D. Roosevelt). The next election will be on November 3, and Michel Caputo, one of Trump's high level appointees to the Department of Health and Human Services was in this week's news for claiming that scientists are lying about effects of Covid in order to make Trump look bad. Caputo also advised that Republicans stockpile guns and ammunition in preparation for the civil war that will follow Trump's re-election. If it really does come to that--and very little seems inconceivable at this point--armed rebellion would be more likely to occur if Trump loses because it is his followers who own all the guns.

I feel badly about being such a downer anymore. Perhaps, I should go back to posting about cats because I am never so low but what my cats lack the power to make me smile.

Snowbrush said...

In what I hope will be a final update, after two weeks, the wind finally changed last weekend, blowing the smoke away from Eugene. We also got our first measurable rain in months, every summer being a drought-summer here (and ever winter bringing daily drizzle). Because the nearest big fire is still only 17% contained, the problem could certainly return. That fire has burned 177,000 acres and is called the Holiday Farm Fire after a nearby Christmas tree farm. I don't know where it ranks in size compared to other current Oregon fires, but I do know that it's not the largest. Oregon has thus far lost 950,000 acres to fire this season, which is double the average. Being 25 miles from such a phenomenon has certainly given me more empathy for those who suffer, and more respect for those who risk life at worst and health at best to fight them. While I'm certainly grateful to those who do, I'm having too much trouble breathing from relatively distant smoke to want to breathe more smoke from closer up while digging among boulders with powdery volcanic dust filling the air.