More than 90 percent of the fires are provoked, either through negligence or by intention. Cristina Narbona
One, Get Ready, Two, Get Set, Three, Go Now! Are words we never wanted to hear, but we heard them frequently in September.
September in the Pacific Northwest is a beautiful month. The air turns a bit cooler, and thunderstorms bring rain. As summer eases into fall (my favorite season) the leaves turn a kaleidoscope of colors that whirl with the slightest breeze. But, things were different this year. The air was hot and terribly dry, and it felt more like August. Red Flag Warnings were issued, and we desperately needed the rain, rain that never came until it was too late.
It was August 17, when the White River Fire in the Mount Hood National Forest broke out, a wilderness close to our hearts and home; firefighters across Oregon and battled the flames that claimed one life. From our village, we saw the white smoke plumes before they turned to soot. They looked like storm clouds between the folds of the mountains. Now, forty-six days later, the White River Fire is 85 percent contained, and has destroyed 17,412,029 acres.
As the White River Fire burned, more fires broke out. Most were human-caused, some by accident, others deliberately set. For a time, thirty-six fires were burning in the state, now there are thirteen. Most concerning was the Riverside Fire; human-caused, it would become the largest, most devastating fire in Oregon, affecting an entire county, dozens of towns, and thousands of people, ourselves included. It was a beast. In our twenty-three years of forest living, we’ve never seen anything like it. Although we know forest fires are a possibility, we never dreamt any would stem from arson. We evacuated twice in eight days.
It began Labor Day Weekend with a rare windstorm that was set to bring hot, southeast, downslope winds 50 to 90 miles per hour in an already parched terrain. This was a recipe for disaster. The forests were tinder dry. Red Flag Warnings were issued, and with the risk of trees falling onto power lines, PGE prepared to shut down the grid for 28.8 miles, a first for our area.
On September 6, under a haze of smoke, temperatures in the upper 80s, damaging winds forecasted, and the power grid about to be shutdown, we left the foothills for the valley where we would stay for several nights.
On September 8, we learned of the Riverside Fire, a fire close to home that was spreading with fury, and returned home to a dark house. Our fire status went to Level 1 (Get Ready). Thinking the power might return, we drove back to town for supplies. Coming back home, we drove through Damascus, and it was there we saw the flames; towering flames in the not-so-far distance licking the night sky with its forked tongue. It was a horrific sight. As pulled into the driveway in the pitch black, in the headlights we saw our bear can unopened on its side halfway up the driveway; compliments of the Sow Bear. Cautiously, Chris took the bear can back to the front of the driveway. As the smoke thickened, we decided to stay home, pack up some things, and reevaluate our situation in the morning. It was a restless night.
The next morning, September 9, the smoke was dreadful, the air hot, and still, and with no electricity, we made the decision to evacuate for a second time. Most places were either booked or price gouging. We called as far away as The Dalles, but they were also booked. The only direction was north or west, so we headed west. We ended up in Tigard, taking the last room at an Inn with poor air conditioning, and the faint smell of smoke that seeped underneath the door and through poorly insulated windows. We dreaded this place and refused to stay another night. We ordered pizza for dinner, and then went to bed. In the morning, Chris surprised me with reservations in Tillamook, a place we would be happy to call home for the next five days. We left early, driving through smoke as thick as fog. There was an eerie calm, the air stale, and dingy. Not until we had reached the summit of the Coast Range did the air clear, and the temperature cool. We rolled down the windows inhaling gulps of fresh air that felt cool on our skin. The air smelled green. It felt like Heaven.
The air quality in Tillamook was 90 percent better with only a little smoke mixed with coastal clouds and fog, cooler temperatures, and even a little rain and drizzle at times. Seeing rain on the windshield, and puddles in the streets, never looked so beautiful. It felt good to be away. For a while, we lost ourselves in normalcy. We walked among spruce forests and took long walks on the beach in peace and tranquility.
On September 15, we returned home not knowing what to expect. Was our home and community spared from the fire? Were our trees still standing? Was their looting? To our relief, we found our community safe. The fire hadn’t reached us. And, the power grid was restored that morning. Our home was safe, it was secure, and it wasn’t filled with smoke. Our only loss was the food in the refrigerator and freezer–three Hefty bags filled to the brim, included an Italian meatloaf I’d made the day before all this started. I hated having to throw it all out, but knowing so many had lost everything made us all the more thankful that this was all we lost. It was bittersweet.
But it wasn’t over yet. We hadn’t been home long when we were upgraded to a Level 2 (Get Set). My heart sank. I didn’t want to evacuate a third time, but left everything packed just in case. For days we were on edge, closely watching the fire reports.
Then, on September 29, the news we were anxiously waiting for came through—all evacuations for our county were dropped. As for the Mount Hood National Forest, it remains off limits to all recreation, and so trout fishing will have to wait. It took another week before our usual wild friends returned. They were as happy to see us as we were to see them. I can’t say for sure, but I think the raccoons were smiling.
At present, the Riverside Fire, the largest in the state, is still burning. It has consumed 138,085 acres and is 54% contained. The fires destroyed more than 1 million acres in Oregon.
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