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The West Coast is burning. We've gathered information about the wildfires here, along with where you can donate.
(Videos may be watched via the link above)
By Jackson Ryan and Eric Mack
First published on Sept. 9, 2020 at 8:15 p.m. PT.
A devastating fire season is continuing to blaze a destructive path across the Western US. Infernos in California, Oregon and Washington state have caused at least 36 deaths, with dozens missing and thousands of homes destroyed or evacuated since the season began.
On Friday came news that a firefighter was found dead amid the charred landscape of the El Dorado fire. That fire was accidentally started by pyrotechnics set off for a gender reveal party outside Los Angeles.
The Sacramento Bee reports that four of the five largest fires in California history are currently burning in the state.
This week the wildfires seem to have moved into a new phase, with cooler temperatures and rain helping firefighters, but also raising the risk of flash floods, which is highly elevated in recently burned areas. Officials warn that fire season is far from over, and the volatile combination of heat and dry lightning could return, leading to new fires and flare-ups.
Flames are now spreading in Idaho and Utah, and smoke from the conflagrations is causing a veil of haze to descend over the length of the country, reaching as far east as New York City, with satellite images confirming Wednesday that smoke from the fires has been carried all the way to Europe. In the Southwest, which has been spared from the worst of this fire season, migratory birds are dropping dead by the hundreds of thousands, with some speculating that the smoke may be playing a role.
In places like San Francisco, Blade Runner-esque orange skies have alarmed residents. Air quality became so degraded it forced the closure of Yosemite National Park. Driven by some of the hottest temperatures on record and exacerbated by climate change, the situation is grim.
California's wildfires have already burned more acres than any year on record. As of Friday, there are major blazes burning in at least eight Western states, according to the interagency incident information system (Inciweb). Data from the system and the National Interagency Fire Center indicate that nearly 10 million acres have already burned in 2020, putting the season on track to soon become the most destructive in nearly 70 years with several weeks of peak fire season still on the way.
Oregon fires have burned more than 1 million acres, said Gov. Kate Brown. She called the blazes a "once-in-a-generation event." Firefighters seemed to gain the upper hand on the fires this week, but new threats sprung up further to the south where the small town of Paisley was evacuated due to a human-caused fire.
The images and stories coming out of the US West are eerily reminiscent of those experienced by Australians late last year and early this year, when vast swaths of Australia burned. The skies turned orange, and smoke blanketed the country's largest cities. Entire cities were flattened. Now, across the Pacific, this grim history is repeating.
Here's what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from the US or afar.
Why did the West Coast wildfires start?Fires can start in a variety of ways. Human activity, like carelessly discarding a cigarette, poorly maintained infrastructure or even gender reveal parties with pyrotechnics can spark fires. Some of the wildfires currently blazing across California are the result of accidental ignition.
Fires can also be deliberately lit, though arson has not been linked to the current conflagrations. Rumors have circulated through social media that some of the fires may have been intentionally set by either right-wing or leftist activists, leading some officials to mount social media campaigns of their own to dispel the myths.
The El Dorado fire in California was started by a gender reveal party that used devices similar to fireworks, igniting dry grasses and eventually burning over 18,000 acres outside of Los Angeles.
Nature also conspires to begin fires, with lightning strikes a major concern. In California, intense thunderstorms kicked off a number of large blazes in August. Prolonged periods of drought and mismanagement of national forests may also play a role in helping these fires start. With the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold. The risk of the wildfires burning across the Western US was well-known to scientists and, regardless of the origins, fires are fueled by a dizzying number of factors.
A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds, small fires can quickly become huge infernos. This all feels extremely similar to anyone familiar with the bushfire crisis confronted by Australia in January. Environmental factors contributed significantly to the unprecedented fire season down under and they are playing out again in the US -- partially driven by the negative effects of climate change.
How are wildfires and climate change connected?Wildfires aren't started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community funded climate organization, suggests fire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils, and record-breaking heat in Australia. The link between fires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis.
Wildfires are getting worse in the US. According to data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity program, on average, there are more wildfires, and they are burning more land each year. A study published in July 2019 concluded that "human-caused warming has already significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California ... and will likely continue to do so in the coming decades."
There's no question that 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record for the planet, and a 75% chance it will be the hottest ever, according to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Increased temperatures allow fires to burn more intensely and also cause forests to dry out and burn more easily. The heating is unequivocally caused by climate change. "The debate is over around climate change," California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters on Friday, standing in a charred landscape. "Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It's not an intellectual debate. It's not even debatable."
There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019 and the Australian bushfires of 2020. Huge fires release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat. Andrew Sullivan, a fire research team leader for CSIRO, an Australian government research agency, examined how technology may help predict and fight against fires. In September, he told CNET that "changes to the climate are exposing more areas to the likelihood of fire."
How many wildfires are currently burning?Inciweb currently lists over 100 fire incidents in ten western US states that are considered active. These are all at different levels of containment. The greatest conflagrations remain in California and Oregon, with some growing concern about Idaho.
More than 5 million acres have burned in California, Washington and Oregon alone. One of the largest fires during the Australian season, the Gospers mountain megafire, burned through around 2.2 million acres. "Unprecedented" is the word again being used by officials, weather services and media to describe the size and severity of the blazes. The dust and ash from the fires have turned the skies orange across California.
Blazes in Oregon have been increasingly destructive, driven by heavy winds. "I want to be upfront in saying that we expect to see a great deal of loss, both in structures and human lives," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said during a briefing Tuesday. "This could be the greatest loss of human lives and property due to wildfire in our state's history."
Washington has also experienced significant fires, with almost 350,000 acres burned in a 24-hour period in early September. Two large fires broke out on Sept. 8, and Gov. Jay Inslee said "more acres burned ... than in 12 of the last 18 entire fire seasons in the state of Washington."
More recently, fires have sprung up in Idaho, including one that quickly grew to over 84,000 acres.
The New York Times has an informative fire map that can help you track where conflagrations are burning.
Who's fighting the fires? In California, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, heads up the wildland firefighting effort, but actually beating back the flames on the ground is a massive collaboration that also involves local, county and federal resources. Teams of National Forest Service and other agencies' "hotshot" teams travel from as far as New Mexico to fight fires on the ground.
California also employs a controversial "conservation camp" program in which prison inmates are trained to fight fires. Prisoners can earn time off their sentences and continue toward a career in emergency services upon their release. But the program has been criticized for the dangerous work that comes with meager pay.
Many conservation camps have been sidelined in the wildfire fight during this record-breaking season due to outbreaks of the coronavirus. But as of Thursday, inmate crews were out on the line fighting the out-of-control Creek Fire near Fresno.
The fires dragging on for so long and continuing to spark in new locations brings the risk of resources being depleted. Fire crews are being deployed to fire lines for several days at a time, only to be re-deployed with minimal time for rest and recovery between assignments. Firefighters from Los Angeles have made the long drive to help fight fires in northern California, only to see the need for those resources back home as blazes grow in the southern part of the state.
What about the smoke from the wildfires?The smoke and ash from wildfires can irritate the respiratory tract and make it harder to breathe. During Australia's bushfire season, there was a stark increase in the amount of calls to ambulance services and researchers have demonstrated there may be a significant health burden on those exposed to smoke. Respiratory distress sees more people entering hospitals in the US during a typical wildfire season.
Fine particles in the air can cause damage to the lungs and increase inflammation in the short-term. What is less certain is the long-term effects of exposure to smoke.
We have become intimately familiar with the use of masks over the last six months, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but you may be wondering whether you need to use one to protect against smoke from wildfires. The short answer is: You probably should, but filtering smoke and ash out of the air requires an N95 or P100 mask -- and public health officials suggest these should be reserved for health care workers. They also cannot completely filter out some of the gases present in wildfire smoke.
Cloth masks and other coverings we have become familiar with during the pandemic will not be effective at protecting against smoke. The US Environmental Protection Agency says remaining indoors and limiting your time outdoors is "the most effective way" to protect yourself during wildfire emergencies.
You can find current air quality data from AirNow for your ZIP code, city or state.
How you can help
Other things you can do
BY HILLARY ROSNER
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 26, 2020
It’s been a sad, smoky few months in Colorado. Although the blazes in California and Oregon received more national attention over the summer, Colorado has been burning since July.
Three of the largest fires in state history have burned this year. The Cameron Peak fire, now the largest in state history, has burned more than 207,000 acres since mid-August. The second-largest blaze in state history, the East Troublesome Fire, started on October 13—and a few days later grew by 140,000 acres in a single night. That fire, spurred by intense winds, jumped the Continental Divide, traveling across more than a mile of rocks and tundra shrubland and into Rocky Mountain National Park. It had burned more than 190,000 acres—and an estimated 300 to 400 houses—before a snowstorm provided some relief on October 25.
Active fires since October 19, 2020
700,000 acres—almost 1,100 square miles—have burned in Colorado this year. Almost a third of that happened in October, well outside what’s long been considered the normal fire season.
© NGP, Content may not reflect National Geographic's current map policy. NOTE: Data as of October 26, 2020. SOURCE: NATIONAL INTERAGENCY FIRE CENTER
The same factors that led to disaster in California—climate change and a legacy of misguided forest management—are at play here too. Almost all of Colorado is now experiencing severe, extreme, or exceptional drought. And according to the Denver Post, crews have not yet begun $4.2 billion worth of forest thinning and other projects the state has deemed “critical to protect people and property from fires.”
Where I live, in Boulder, mid-October temperatures were still in the 80s. Ash had been falling for months and firefighting jets flew overhead most days—but until recently the fires themselves felt like something that happened elsewhere. Boulder was in the national news for another reason: On October 13, U.S. News and World Report named it the best place to live in the entire country.
Since I moved here, in 2002, the population has increased by about 13 percent, to 106,000, and home prices have skyrocketed. Much of that growth is people who, like me, moved from larger metro areas—New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area—for Boulder’s quality of life. The median price of a home here is now about $1.125 million, and houses frequently receive multiple offers within hours of listing.
Meanwhile, in the hills west of Boulder, the ponderosa pine forests are overcrowded and unhealthy, and they haven’t been allowed to burn in their natural fire cycles for more than a hundred years. When they do finally burn, climate change will increase the odds of those fires getting big fast, like the ones this year. The city and county have been working to thin some of these areas, with selective logging and prescribed burns. But it takes time, money, and coordination between a host of different stakeholders.
It’s a question of when, not whether, a fire will come roaring into Boulder itself. Yet few people here think about their risk. I didn’t used to myself, until lately.
Four days after the “best place to live” award, under high winds and a red flag warning, a new fire began, and a cloud of smoke mushroomed from a mountainside northwest of town. Christened the CalWood Fire for the beloved outdoor education center where it ignited—cause unknown but undoubtedly human—the blaze quickly grew. Small communities in the foothills evacuated.
Then the CalWood fire raced downhill from the mountains to the plains. It became the biggest fire in Boulder County history, at more than 10,000 acres. The flames briefly crossed US 36, a main thoroughfare that heads north out of Boulder.
People fled as quickly as they could, loading horses into trailers, packing dogs and cats and valuables into cars. It seemed as though the fire might continue to spread east and south, into Boulder. City residents who rarely worry about wildfire became uneasy.
For only the second time in the 18 years I’ve lived here, on the southwestern side of town, my family packed go bags. So did many people I know.
Top: Smoke from the East Troublesome Fire fills the sky above Estes Park, on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, on Oct. 22, 2020.
Bottom: The entire town of Estes Park was evacuated as the fire approached; here Estes
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW JONAS, MEDIANEWS GROUP, BOULDER DAILY CAMERA, GETTY IMAGES
On the edge
Boulder sits where the plains meet the mountains at a sharp angle, and it’s surrounded by a greenbelt—preserved in the 1960s by prescient city planners—that’s key to its allure. But all that lovely open space also poses a risk, even if we tend to underestimate it. People who work on wildfires talk about the wildland-urban interface, or the WUI (pronounced woo-eee). It’s where neighborhoods meet natural areas. It’s where people have increasingly chosen to live, and where wildfire risk is highest.
In Boulder, residents of the flatter, more paved neighborhoods—the city proper—tend to think of the WUI as being up in what city planners call “the mountain backdrop.” That’s a fallacy.
“The city of Boulder is the definition of the WUI,” says Chris Wanner, forest ecologist for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks department. “We are right here. But I think it’s somewhat easy to get complacent when you feel like, ‘I live in the city, it’s not going to impact me.’”
This sentiment was common in an unscientific poll I took, questioning a couple dozen friends who live on the west side of town. “Do you feel like you are at risk from wildfire?” I asked, the Friday after the CalWood fire began. (That blaze was followed the next day by another local fire, and more mountain evacuations.)
“I've lived in Boulder on and off for 25 years and this is the first year I've worried about wildfire in Boulder,” one friend said. “I generally feel this is a mountain community issue, but the jump of CalWood across 36 was a bit of a reality check,” said another.
Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist and director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, points out that while flood plain maps are commonplace, “we don’t have fire maps that direct development and insurance in the same way, so you don’t think about it when you buy your house.” Balch is also my neighbor; we both live near a trailhead where a five-minute walk up a grassy hill takes you into ponderosa pine forest. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and it’s primed to go up in flames. I was curious how Balch thought about the risk.
“At some point, the conditions are going to be in the right place,” she said of our neighborhood and its chances of burning. She pointed out the line of junipers that create a privacy barrier between the trailhead and a couple of homes that back to it. Junipers can burn fast and hot, shooting off embers. Yet they’re common in neighborhoods throughout Boulder that were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the fast-growing trees were popular.
Balch showed me a new app called Defensible that maps fire risk on a color scale, building by building, across all 11 Western states. Red is the highest risk, blue is the lowest. Both our homes were orange.
“Everybody has their own risk tolerance,” Balch said, “ and on some level some of that doesn’t make any sense.”
The time to prepare
Over the past 15 years, the city of Boulder has thinned forests and conducted prescribed burns on 2,000 acres. That kind of work can cost millions of dollars. But it’s certainly a lot less costly than putting out a fire that’s racing into town, let alone the potential damages if the fire can’t be put out in time. As I watched the progress of the CalWood fire last week, I was reminded of the Waldo Canyon fire in the summer of 2012. It began in the hills outside Colorado Springs, but then it swept into the city, burning nearly 350 homes in suburban subdivisions.
Over the weekend, snow put a damper on some of the Colorado fires. This photo shows an area that had been in the path of the Cameron Fire, which also affected Rocky Mountain National Park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY U.S. FOREST SERVICE, AP
People do incredibly stupid things, and they are not going to stop as the weather gets hotter and drier. Balch recalled watching with horror, not long ago, as a man put out a cigarette 20 feet along a trail near our houses. “I was like, ‘You made sure that’s out, right?’” she said. All summer, my own sleep had been interrupted by fireworks—a favorite pastime in a nearby student neighborhood. Even as the CalWood fire burned, I woke to the sound of fireworks exploding, feeling overwhelmed by a mixture of rage and dread. It does not take much to set bone-dry vegetation ablaze. And bone-dry vegetation is increasingly likely in the age of climate change.
As the CalWood Fire crept toward Boulder, Lori Peek found herself in the evacuation zone; she fled with her husband and dog “as spot fires ignited the parched land” on the mountainside behind her house. Peek happens to know a lot about risk, as a sociologist who studies disaster and directs the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. In a blog post she wrote that while waiting to learn if her house was still standing, she urged people to recognize the risks they faced and “make provisions.”
“Please don’t wait,” Peek wrote. “The time to prepare has always been now.”
My family and I were lucky last week; the fire never reached our neighborhood. Peek was lucky too; her house survived. But some two dozen other dwellings burned in that fire, along with hundreds more in the other blazes.
The fires near Boulder, at least, are now under control, and the region is blanketed in snow. But the risk remains. “Every time one of these fires happens,” says Wanner, “it’s like, it could’ve been a little bit closer to town. For sure.”
8 Sustainable Craft Breweries In The USA That Help You Live Every Day Like It's Earth Day
Article by: Sarah Spoljaric
Drink ResponsiblyEarth Day (observed annually on April 22nd) is a day to appreciate everything the Earth does for us and to focus on how we can protect it for the future. What better way to celebrate then to show the planet some gratitude this month with a cold beer from a sustainable brewery.
1. Anderson Valley Brewing Company Where To Find Them | Boonville, CA
Why We Love Them | Hard to miss with their mascot the “beer” (a bear with deer antlers) Anderson Valley is committed to reusing water to help the California drought, donating healthy grains to local livestock, running on 40% solar power, and using recycled cans. Spend an afternoon on their free 18-hole frisbee golf course, with payment for lost frisbee’s in push-ups. Known for their malty Boont Amber Ale, they’ve recently begun releasing a variety of Gose sour beers, which are a personal favorite, and are perfect for a daytime outdoor BBQ or kayaking excursion.
VISIT ANDERSON VALLEY BREWING COMPANY ONLINE
2. New Belgium Brewing Company Where To Find Them | Fort Collins, CO
Why We Love Them | New Belgium Brewing Company releases a yearly sustainability report so you can keep up with all the good they are doing for the world. In 2016, 99% of their waste did not end up in a landfill since they find a variety of ways to recycle and reuse it. You can find their famous Fat Tire Amber Ale all over the US, or head to their brewery in Fort Collins and celebrate Earth Day there. Not sure which of their beers are for you? Take advantage of their beer flights to get a taste of a variety of beers they (or any other brewery) offer to discover your favorites.
VISIT NEW BELGIUM BREWING COMPANY ONLINE
3. Brooklyn Brewery Where To Find Them | Brooklyn, NY
Why We Love Them | Brooklyn Brewery works on sustainability through their beer, warehouse, offices, tasting room, and community. In 2016, across the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, they planted 375 acres of CO2 converting trees. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on their limited Serpent Belgian style golden ale aged in bourbon barrels it will not disappoint. Their local favorite, Brooklyn Lager is perfect for hanging in a hammock and taking in all the scenery.
VISIT BROOKLYN BREWERY ONLINE
4. Ninkasi Brewery Where To Find Them | Eugene, OR
Why We Love Them | Focusing on giving back to their community through fundraising and donating profits to charities, Ninkasi Brewery has upcycled over 40 millions pounds of grains since 2009. They also use solar power to provide a portion of energy to produce their incredible beers. Known for their IPA’s with names as mind blowing as the beer, from their hard hitting double IPA, Tricerahops, to their IPA, Dawn Of The Red, Ninkasi kills the game.
VISIT NINKASI BREWERY ONLINE
5. Hops and Grain Where To Find Them | Austin, TX
Why We Love Them | From making dog treats with their grains to having conscious water practices, Hops and Grain creates a fun atmosphere for their devoted customers. Frequently changing the brews they have on tap you’ll never get bored at their Austin taproom. Their crisp pale ale, A Pale Mosaic, and malty porter, A Porter Culture, will hit the spot any day of the week. I’d say to pour one out for the #1 homie Earth, but I’m sure the earth would prefer you just drink it instead.
VISIT HOPS AND GRAIN ONLINE
6. Alaskan Brewing Company Where To Find Them | Juneau, AK
Why We Love Them | Do you dream of enjoying a beer with one of the most majestic views on earth? Alaskan Brewing Company will make any explorer thrilled. They hold the torch for being the first craft brewery beginning in 1998 to use a CO2 recovery system to clean the CO2 produced during the fermentation process. The aptly named Hopothermia, an American Double IPA, that Alaskan Brewing Co describes “pairs best with large wild game that you have caught with your bare hands.” Can’t get any more in Alaskan than that.
VISIT THE ALASKAN BREWING COMPANY ONLINE
7. Sierra Nevada Where To Find Them | Chico, CA
Why We Love Them | Possibly the most well known craft brewery, Sierra Nevada, has been committed to sustainability since day one, as well as making some of the best beers in the world. By offering some of their well known brews, like their Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA in cans they are able to, not only make a more portable beer for adventuring, but the cans are more easily recyclable. So throw a couple in your backpack to enjoy the mountaintop views during a hike, or just hang out with some backyard cornhole.
VISIT SIERRA NEVADA ONLINE
8. Heritage Brewery Co Where To Find Them | Manassas, VA
Why We Love Them | Focused on giving back to veterans and patriots and where all the furniture in the tap house is recycled or repurposed, Heritage Brewing Co works hard to put in the hours to create beer that inspires and helps the planet. Celebrating all things America, check out their East Coast Pale Ale, The Teddy, which is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, who created the United States National Forest Service and established five national parks. Any of which would make a wonderful backdrop for celebrating Earth Day.
VISIT HERITAGE BREWING CO ONLINE
So raise a glass and make a toast to the beautiful planet we all call home this summer, and don’t forget to recycle the bottle!
By Pamela Johnson with Loveland Reporter-Herald
Fire officials are expecting warm, windy weather Monday on both the Cameron Peak and Mullen fires, saying the winds may test their fire lines but hoping to keep the flames from spreading further.
The Cameron Peak Fire, which sparked in western Larimer County on Aug. 13, has burned 126,164 acres, making it the third largest fire in Colorado history behind the 2002 Hayman Fire and the still burning Pine Gulch fire. As of Sunday, it remained at 40% contained.
Fire crews worked by hand, with heavy equipment and with the help of air tankers over the weekend to strengthen barriers built to stop the spread of the fire, to douse areas of extreme fire heat to prevent more spread and to protect homes that are threatened by the fire.
So far, the fire has damaged or destroyed 99 structures, and evacuations and closures remain in place.
And with warmer temperatures and winds that could gust to 40 mph on Monday, the fire area was covered by a red flag warning from 9 p.m. Sunday through 7 p.m. Monday. An online fire report said these conditions are expected to “test” the work fire crews have completed along the eastern edge and the northeast corner of the fire, which have been the highest priority for containment recently. “We have some challenging weather coming up, which is going to test our fire and test our control lines,” John Norton-Jensen, planning operations trainee with the Northwest Incident Management Team, said in a recorded briefing on Sunday.
A second fire that sparked in Southern Wyoming on Sept. 17, has burned across the Colorado border in Jackson County and led to some evacuations there and in northwestern Larimer County. The Mullen Fire was reported at 140,140 acres and 11% contained on Sunday. Officials warned of a warming dry trend that will start on Monday that, with gusty winds, is expected to lead to active burning and significant fire spread.” Chip Redmond, incident meteorologist, said Sunday that the warmer, drier, windier conditions will continue on the Mullen Fire through the week.
“They’re still going to be cranking,” Redmond said in a recorded briefing. “They’re going to be gusting 30 even 35 mph, not on the fire but around the fire … The rest of week, its rinse, wash, repeat. I don’t see any reprieve this week.”
The winds from the Mullen Fire have carried the smoke throughout surrounding communities, including reaching both Loveland and Fort Collins. This is predicted to continue on Monday.
Article By Mike Baker
SALEM, Oregon — The warnings kept getting more dire: Even in the lush landscapes west of the Cascade Mountains, the climate in Oregon was getting warmer and drier. More people were moving up into the tree-covered hills, where thick forests were poised for ignition.
Early this year, looking to overcome the political stalemates that have long paralyzed decisions in the West around timber and wildfires, Gov. Kate Brown backed legislation to tackle the whole range of problems: thinning the forests, hiring more firefighters, establishing new requirements to make homes more fire-resistant and — looking to the future — a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gas emissions that would assure that Oregon was doing its part to combat climate change. “We must be prepared for the more voracious wildfire seasons to come,” Ms. Brown said.
Within weeks, though, the plans were dead. Republican lawmakers staged a walkout on the cap-and-trade proposal, and the bills that would have provided millions of dollars to prevent and suppress wildfires were left on the table.
Months later, the scenario everyone feared came to pass: A series of historic wildfires this month has wiped out communities and killed at least nine people in Oregon. The fires have burned across more than five million acres in three states, and with dozens still burning along the West Coast, fire officials said this week that some may not be contained until the end of October.
For policymakers in Oregon, the disastrous fires have illustrated the consequences of delay and prompted new conversations about some of the lasting changes that until now have eluded lawmakers.
“It brings a new reality,” said Roger Nyquist, a Republican county commissioner in Linn County, one of the counties hit by the Beachie Creek Fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes in communities along Highway 22. “I think we’ve got to have a balanced conversation.”
Image Photographed by Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
State Senator Lew Frederick, a Democrat, said he was hopeful that the devastation Oregon had seen over the past several weeks, including hazardous smoke that blanketed the region for days, would help shift the politics. Mr. Frederick says that informal discussions are already underway about how to address wildfires, and that there is a chance the Legislature could convene in a special session to vote on new measures this year.
“How long will it last? I don’t know,” Mr. Frederick said. “I hope it lasts longer than it has in the past.”
But State Senator Herman Baertschiger Jr., who was the Republican minority leader leading the walkout over the cap-and-trade plan, worried that groups ranging from logging proponents on the right to environmentalists on the left might dig in during a time of intense political polarization around the country.
Given the ferociousness of the fires and the power of the warm, dry winds that propelled them through the towering Douglas firs of the western Cascades, the measures that Ms. Brown supported this year would have had little chance to make a substantial difference. But policymakers emphasize that adjusting to the reality of a warming climate is a long game — as are the strategies for combating wildfire.
Fires have always been a part of the region’s landscape, and long before European settlers arrived, Native Americans embraced controlled burning as a strategy to manage the lands. While the types of blazes that Oregon saw this month — summer flames stoked by dry winds from the east — are not common, they are also not unheard-of in the Northwest’s more recent history, going back to the deadly Yacolt Burn in 1902.
The tensions over how to properly manage the state’s timberlands have also been around since the state’s inception, when settlers in Portland were felling so many trees that the city got the nickname Stumptown.
The often competing interests between economic growth and environmental stewardship have been locked for decades in disagreements, including a battle over the spotted owl, which faced extinction in the 1980s as the industry cut through ancient forests along the coast. That dispute, which included lawsuits and legislation that drove a lasting decline in the timber industry, escalated to the point that President Bill Clinton had to intervene to strike a solution that became the Northwest Forest Plan.
But some areas preserved for wildlife and recreation have sprouted robust, combustible trees and underbrush, and the risk of wildfires has continued to grow. Since the environmental compromises of the early 1990s, the wildland-urban interface where communities are most at risk of wildfire in Oregon has seen the number of homes grow by about 40 percent. Population growth there and elsewhere has also raised the prospect of more human-caused fires.
Continue reading the main storyPolicymakers took a closer look at the issues again after the Biscuit Fire in 2002 consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Oregon, but the efforts got bogged down in disputes over how to handle the timberland that remains a key part of Oregon’s economy.
Steve Pedery, conservation director at the environmental advocacy organization Oregon Wild, said his group was willing to discuss some timber removal around endangered communities or where forests have become overgrown. But he cautioned that such projects often did not make financial sense for the timber industry, which typically presses to push logging deeper in the woods and has the power to gain support from lawmakers.
“Timber is to Oregon what coal is to West Virginia,” Mr. Pedery said. He said he was nonetheless hopeful that compromise could now be possible — even if it included components that his group did not support.
Firefighting strategy remains equally open to debate, especially as homes and towns edge further into what was once wilderness.
In places like southwest Oregon, where natural wildfires used to keep the vegetation thinned, fire suppression policies have allowed the forests to grow dense and unnaturally high, said Norm Johnson, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s forestry program who helped develop the Northwest Forest Plan. He said the forests needed thinning or controlled burns to lower the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
But Mr. Johnson rejected the idea that more private timber harvesting was the key to protecting Oregon from fires. A consulting firm estimated that nearly half of the acres burned this month in western Oregon were controlled by private landowners, and Mr. Johnson believes that the primary reason those lands burned vigorously was because they had become densely stocked with marketable trees.
Image Photographed by Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times
In any case, he said, in the regions of the western Cascades that are filled with enormous Douglas firs, rare but voracious wildfires are simply part of the ecology.
Widespread thinning through those lands may be impossible — and unpopular among environmental groups — and prescribed burning can be unpopular if it ends up sending smoke into nearby communities.“When they burn, they burn hot, and there’s not much we can do about it except stay out of the way and also suppress the fires when they are small,” Mr. Johnson said.
There is broader support for thinning trees or creating barriers near communities that could be at risk from wildfire. And because timber companies often find such projects less profitable, it could fall on the government to strike up cost-sharing arrangements or to foot the bill — a cost that would be repeated over time.
“Managing the forests is like mowing the lawn,” said Mr. Baertschiger, the Republican state senator. “You don’t mow the lawn once and say I’m done forever.”
Ms. Brown’s task force that came up with wildfire management recommendations estimated the cost of treatment at $4 billion over 20 years to help ease the wildfire potential on 5.6 million acres of high-risk land. The task force warned that the cost of inaction would be much higher.
“This is 100 years in the making,” said Matt Donegan, who chaired Ms. Brown’s wildfire council. “It’s going to take a long, devoted, faithful effort to have any real impacts or results.”
Adding another layer of complication is that many of the lands in need of management are owned by the federal government, requiring coordination and approval from its agencies.
Federal agencies have long fallen short of their forest-restoration goals but have worked in recent years to form partnerships to draw in state funding. Mr. Donegan said he understood the philosophical aversion to the idea of states with tight budgets contributing millions of dollars to manage federal lands, but he said he was hopeful that spending the money could help make forests less vulnerable to disaster.
Other parts of the governor’s plan included embracing some of the lessons California learned during devastating wildfires over the past few years, after which the state began requiring utilities to improve transmission-line management and consider pre-emptive electrical shutdowns during risky weather events. Officials in Oregon said at least 13 of the latest fires were started from downed power lines in the area of the devastating Beachie Creek blaze.
The Oregon wildfire council also proposed more air monitoring and filtering for days when fires blanket the West Coast in acrid smoke, as they did last week.
Mr. Donegan said he was hopeful that the dug-in sides would now be able to agree on some compromise strategies, noting that he had heard from legislators in recent days who have not historically been engaged on the wildfire issue but are now looking for solutions.
Fire retardant covered a pool next to a mobile home park in Talent.Oregon has looked at measures that could make communities in wildland fire areas more fire resistant. A lot of the proposed actions would be costly. The council found that Oregon cut its firefighting personnel during the financial crisis more than a decade ago but failed to reverse those cutbacks even as wildfire activity grew. The council called for adding dozens of forestry workers, as well as modernizing the firefighting fleet, including buying new air tankers.The state has also looked at measures that could alter communities in wildland fire areas to make them more fire resistant. That could include working with landowners to clear possible ignition sources or to use building materials less likely to catch fire from an ember.
But, as with other issues, there is disagreement about how to make that happen. The governor’s council proposed altering building codes in wildfire-prone areas. Mr. Baertschiger was not so sure about that idea.
“A lot of these folks live there because they don’t want government intervention,” he said.
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