Left Coast firemap
Left Coast firemap

Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Ida­ho, and Cal­i­for­nia con­tin­ued their lurch fur­ther into anoth­er cri­sis lay­ered on top of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic and the sys­temic oppres­sion of BIPOC indi­vid­u­als on Wednes­day as a bar­rage of mas­sive fires (many human caused) raged out of con­trol up and down the Left Coast, threat­en­ing lives and rapid­ly destroy­ing entire towns and rur­al communities.

Ore­gon Gov­er­nor Kate Brown, siz­ing up the poten­tial scale of the cat­a­stro­phe, warned: “It could be the great­est loss in human lives and prop­er­ty in our state’s his­to­ry. My heart goes out to all the fam­i­lies impact­ed by this dev­as­tat­ing event.”

Like oth­er states in the West, Ore­gon has seen — and fought — big fires before. But the con­fla­gra­tions Ore­gon usu­al­ly sees dur­ing fire sea­sons are usu­al­ly in more remote areas in the east as opposed to in or near the major pop­u­la­tion cen­ters in the Willamette Val­ley, which is west of the Cas­cade Mountains.

Because peo­ple live clos­er togeth­er in sub­ur­ban and urban com­mu­ni­ties, it is hard­er to save struc­tures and pre­vent loss of life from a fast mov­ing fire.

The towns of Detroit, Blue Riv­er, Vida, Phoenix and Tal­ent have all been sub­stan­tial­ly destroyed, a very grave Brown said. Blue Riv­er and Vida are locat­ed in Lane Coun­ty, while Detroit is in Mar­i­on Coun­ty and Phoenix and Tal­ent are in Jack­son Coun­ty. Phoenix and Tal­ent have pop­u­la­tions in the thou­sands; Blue Riv­er, Vida, and Detroit have pop­u­la­tions in the hundreds.

Many more towns are at risk of burn­ing to the ground due to the fires.

Fire­fight­ers report that they are stretched thin and sim­ply don’t have the human­pow­er or the resources to prop­er­ly fight the destruc­tive blazes.

The num­ber of fires, the speed at which they are grow­ing, and the adverse weath­er con­di­tions that are ham­per­ing air sup­port are all tak­ing a toll.

One Eugene based fire­fight­er said that as he returned to Lane Coun­ty’s urban cen­ter, he saw “a career’s worth of fires and tragedy in about eigh­teen hours.”

“We’re expe­ri­enc­ing one of those cat­a­stroph­ic Cal­i­for­nia fires we’ve been watch­ing unfold for years. Now they’re at home here in Ore­gon,” Lane Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er Heather Buch told The Oregonian.

Speak­ing of Cal­i­for­nia, the Gold­en State is expe­ri­enc­ing many more such cat­a­stroph­ic fires, leav­ing the state unable to come to Ore­gon’s aid.

GOES Satellite imagery of Left Coast fires
From NOAA: “On Sep­tem­ber 8th, 2020, the #GOESWest Satel­lite focused in on the #Ore­gon­Fires and #Cal­i­for­ni­aFires. We can not only see all the smoke they pro­duce, but by com­bin­ing Fire Tem­per­a­ture RGB with this Geo­Col­or imagery, we can see the red­dish glow of the hot spots where they originate.”

“California’s already record-set­ting fire sea­son wors­ened con­sid­er­ably Wednes­day as more than two dozen fires forced thou­sands of res­i­dents from their homes amid grow­ing alarm about a new mon­ster blaze that rapid­ly con­sumed more than 250,000 acres around Oroville and burned an unknown num­ber of struc­tures,” the Los Ange­les Times report­ed in a sto­ry pub­lished at 12:31 PM.

“The sun, which is usu­al­ly reli­able, slept in on Wednes­day,” the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle’s Steve Ruben­stein and Michael Cabanat­u­an wrote. “That’s the way it seemed through­out the Bay Area as the smoke from count­less wild­fires mixed with clouds and fog to tint the sky, and just about every­thing else, a dark burnt orange. Some folks said it felt like liv­ing on the next plan­et over, the red one.”

The town of Par­adise, which was most­ly wiped out two years ago in the Camp Fire, is once again star­ing down an apoc­a­lyp­tic fate due to the afore­men­tioned fire that has already burned hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres near Oroville.

In Wash­ing­ton, State Com­mis­sion­er of Pub­lic Lands Hilary Franz toured the gut­ted town of Malden, near Pull­man, which lost eighty per­cent of its struc­tures on Labor Day. Franz announced that more than 587,000 acres in Wash­ing­ton State have recent­ly burned (over a peri­od of just a few days).

“I won’t soon for­get the dev­as­ta­tion I wit­nessed in Malden today,” Franz said. “Burned down homes, smol­der­ing ash­es, and burn scars on build­ings — it was shock­ing. Through it all, I was amazed by the strength and resilien­cy of May­or Chris­tine Fer­rell and the com­mu­ni­ty. Wild­fire isn’t a dis­tant threat. It’s right here in our back­yards. What I saw today strength­ens my resolve: We need to come togeth­er and com­mit to crit­i­cal invest­ments in wild­fire pre­ven­tion so the tragedy the peo­ple of Malden expe­ri­enced does­n’t hap­pen again.”

Mean­while, Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee was in Bon­ney Lake, in Pierce Coun­ty, also tour­ing a burned down neigh­bor­hood and talk­ing with local officials.

Most of Wash­ing­ton State’s big fires are on the east­ern side of the moun­tains, unlike in Ore­gon, but small­er fires on the west side have caused sig­nif­i­cant dam­age, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Pierce County.

“Chief Bud Backer told me he has nev­er seen a fire explode like this one in his 33 years of ser­vice,” Gov­er­nor Inslee said. Cli­mate change is mak­ing these fires more fre­quent, more expen­sive and far more dan­ger­ous. We’re begin­ning to see the costs of cli­mate inac­tion. And they are far too high.”

A high school prin­ci­pal in Kent cred­it­ed Inslee and state lead­ers for pro­vid­ing time­ly sup­port to fire crews that saved many homes from destruction.

Said Scott Haines: “Grate­ful for the sup­port and lead­er­ship of Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee! With­out State inter­ven­tion this week, our neigh­bor­hood may have burned in the Sum­n­er fires! East Pierce Fire imme­di­ate­ly called in three heli­copters Tues­day night from the state lev­el and they say it was the game changer!”

Every neigh­bor­hood and home saved is a vic­to­ry. But the loss­es are already stag­ger­ing and the fires are unfor­tu­nate­ly still burn­ing unchecked in many places. Large fires burn­ing in East­ern Wash­ing­ton include Pearl Hill, Cold Springs and Whit­ney. Most of them have bare­ly been contained.

As ter­ri­ble as this all is, it pales in com­par­i­son to what is com­ing down the pike. Cli­mate sci­en­tists say that in ten years, 2020 will seem like the good old days.

“It’s going to get A LOT worse,” Geor­gia Tech cli­mate sci­en­tist Kim Cobb told The Asso­ci­at­ed Press, in what eas­i­ly ranks as one of the best arti­cles the orga­ni­za­tion has ever cre­at­ed. “I say that with empha­sis because it does chal­lenge the imag­i­na­tion. And that’s the scary thing to know as a cli­mate sci­en­tist in 2020.”

Col­orado Uni­ver­si­ty envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences chief Waleed Abdalati, NASA’s for­mer chief sci­en­tist, con­curred with those sen­ti­ments, telling the AP: “I strong­ly believe we’re going to look back in ten years — cer­tain­ly twen­ty and def­i­nite­ly fifty — and say, ‘Wow, 2020 was a crazy year, but I miss it.”

The notion that 2020 might be fond­ly remem­bered lat­er this cen­tu­ry might seem ridicu­lous­ly absurd now. But con­sid­er­ing that things can always get worse, what these cli­mate sci­en­tists are say­ing makes sense.

“A lot of peo­ple want to blame it on 2020, but 2020 didn’t do this,” North Car­oli­na State cli­ma­tol­o­gist Kathie Del­lo told the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, adding: “We know the behav­ior that caused cli­mate change.”

Or, as our team at NPI says, cli­mate dam­age.

“Cli­mate change” is a prob­lem­at­ic phrase because change can be good as well as bad. (In 2008, Barack Oba­ma ran on the slo­gan Change We Need, for example.)

The cli­mate is not chang­ing for the bet­ter, how­ev­er… it’s chang­ing for the worse. And our behav­ior is the rea­son. We’re chang­ing the com­po­si­tion of the atmos­phere through our inces­sant burn­ing of fos­sil fuels, which range from coal and oil to dirty gas. There are bil­lions of us shar­ing one plan­et, and we aren’t tak­ing very good care of it. The pro­found con­se­quences of decades of inac­tion on cli­mate are now mate­ri­al­iz­ing, just as sci­en­tists forewarned.

It’s not just the extreme weath­er. It’s the melt­ing of our ice sheets and glac­i­ers and per­mafrost. It’s the advance­ment of inva­sive species like the pine bee­tle. It’s the changes in the chem­istry and tem­per­a­ture of our oceans.

We will go on reck­on­ing with the con­se­quences of our fail­ure to respond to the sci­ence for the rest of our lives. Our chil­dren and their chil­dren will ques­tion and debate why we failed to act for so long, cer­tain­ly well past the point when we could have avert­ed some tru­ly trag­ic and pro­found consequences.

Our con­tin­ued fail­ure to make cli­mate jus­tice a pri­or­i­ty — and pur­sue equi­table relief for dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties — will only lead to more mis­ery and hor­ror in the years ahead. These fires are undoubt­ed­ly ter­ri­ble. But if they don’t gal­va­nize us to act — to turn away from the path we’ve been on — then shame on us.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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