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.
“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.