The sky glows bright red in Salem hours before sunset Tuesday, Sept. 8. The Beechie Creek Fire in Marion County was burning about 30 miles to the east. (Photo by Monica Kwasnik)
Opinion | Fire. Evacuations. What next?
As we confront our new normal, we’re still searching for a society designed to protect people
by Paul K. Haeder | 11 Sep 2020
I’ve covered a few wildfire stories over the years as a newspaperman living and working in Cochise County and Tucson, Ariz.; in El Paso reporting on places like Cloudcroft and Ruidoso, N.M.; and in Spokane, reporting on the panhandles of Idaho, Southern British Columbia and Eastern Washington.
Finishing up an urban and regional planning graduate degree at Easter Washington University, I remember discussing intently the wildland-urban interface — an area where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation.
While the wildland-urban interface is a focal area for human-environment challenges like habitat fragmentation, introduction of exotic species and biodiversity decline, at the top of the list is the very issue California, Oregon and Washington are dealing with — the destruction of homes communities and human lives by wildfires.
The reality is a new normal has emerged in the West, over the course of 30 years and intensifying now in the past 15 years. Without being overly dramatic and historical, while living and working in Spokane, I got a lot of background on the Great Fire of 1910, also commonly referred to as the Big Burn. It was August of that year when strong winds caused smaller fires to combine into a firestorm that killed 87 people, destroyed entire towns and burned more than three million acres of forest with an estimated billion dollars’ worth of timber lost.
Paul Haeder has been a journalist since he was 17. He is a social worker for veterans, foster youths, adults with developmental disabilities and those in homeless circumstances, and others battling addiction and recently released from prison.
Fast-forward to 2011, and I am working in Seattle for a newspaper and several colleges, as well as environmental groups. Also, part of Occupy Seattle. Through all of that distraction, I ended up in a couple of conferences focusing on sustainability and urban growth boundaries. For Washington, the term “dangerously overgrown wildlands” combined with the fact that more than 230,000 people had moved into wildfire-prone areas since 1990 were part of the discussion breakouts.
The lack of preparedness, poor interagency cooperation, and dwindling funding at the state and federal levels to not just fight the fires but to mitigate this reality that more and more people are ending up in places where woodlands, timber stands and national forests abutting their communities were front and center issues.
Parallel to this is the issue of libertarianism pushing many communities into an odd situation of paying subscriptions for both firefighting and EMT services. The for-profit outfit Rural/Metro Corp. years ago came into communities in Arizona, Tennessee and Oregon hawking subscriptions for emergency response. I heard from a friend recently who personally knew of a family who had a house fire raging when the fire truck came to the property. The driver looked at his roster, stating the home wasn’t covered because it hadn’t been part of the subscription service. Quickly, the owner pulled out his wallet and put a couple hundred dollars to cover a few years of subscription on the firefighter’s clipboard. Unfortunately, the Tennessee private firefighters let the house burn down.
When to and when not to evacuate
My spouse and I are hosting Yvonne and Darrel Pearce, my in-laws from Sandy. They evacuated Sept. 9 after hearing about a Level 1 warning for their area, along with some confusion about a Level 2 warning also being issued. Some of their friends in Estacada and elsewhere were not so lucky — flames from a 113,000-acre fire burned down outbuildings, overgrown land and cars.
The discussion point in our house today centers around how do we realize a society with seamless systems to protect public health, safety and well-being. Where I live in Waldport, we’ve experienced San Francisco-level pink and pumpkin orange skies, a blotted-out sun and thick acrid smoky air.
For the Pearces, they frantically called the Clackamas County sheriff and fire agencies about friends who live in an area deemed Level 3 — a sort of get the hell out of Dodge command. This is a couple living on many acres with dogs, feral cats and chickens. They are 75 and 91 years old. The husband does not want to evacuate.
This is not so uncommon — people reluctant and refusing to evacuate homes from the threat of firestorms, tornados, hurricanes and blizzards. It turns out my mother-in-law was able to persuade the wife to get out of this area around Eagle Creek.
She was on her way to Richland, Wash., to a Walmart parking lot, “to get as far away from the smoke as possible.” This woman was not able to persuade her 91-year-old husband to leave.
Again, how and where to evacuate and how to coordinate information systems are also topics on the table.
The fact that some states like Oregon make it voluntary to leave versus other states mandates forcing evacuations legally was also brought up.
Yvonne and Darrel stated that they left with very few belongings. “I said goodbye to the apartment and our things,” Yvonne lamented. “Our lives are more important.” What they did take along with them was important paperwork, a few days’ worth of clothes and two funerary urns with the cremains of two of her brothers and those of their dog Buddy. And a tuning harp her father used when directing his church choir.
It was bumper to bumper Wednesday leaving Sandy. They both said it took an hour-plus to get to Highway 26. Many people were evacuating with vehicles loaded down. They both stated people were being considerate to not block all the side and feeder roads.
I asked them both the biggest issue they faced and still face with this evacuation, which is purely voluntary, and at the lowest level of danger at that time.
“It’s very unsettling this is happening,” Darrel said. “We need one system to coordinate information. There are too many gaps.”
Here are the levels for emergency evacuation posted on Clackamas County’s website:
Level 1: BE READY for potential evacuation. You should be aware of the danger that exists in the area, monitor emergency services websites and local media outlets for information. This is the time for preparation and precautionary movements of persons with special needs, mobile property and (under certain circumstances) pets and livestock. If conditions worsen, emergency services personnel may contact you via an emergency notification system.
Level 2: BE SET to evacuate. You must prepare to leave at a moment’s notice. This level indicates there is significant danger to your area, and residents should either voluntary relocate to a shelter or with family and friends outside of the affected area, or if choosing to remain, to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Residents MAY have time to gather necessary items, but doing so is at their own risk. This may be the only notice you receive. Emergency services cannot guarantee that they will be able to notify you if conditions rapidly deteriorate. Area media services will be asked to broadcast periodic updates.
Level 3: GO! Evacuate now! Leave immediately! Danger to your area is current or imminent, and you should evacuate immediately. If you choose to ignore this advisement, you must understand that emergency services may not be available to assist you further. DO NOT delay leaving to gather any belongings or make efforts to protect your home. This will be the last notice you receive.
There is the Avamere at Cascadia Village assisted living center next to my in-laws’ apartment complex. Maybe a hundred units, with possibly twice that number of residents in various stages of ambulation and medical need. What sort of trigger gets pulled for them to evacuate? Level 2 or Level 3? The flames coming over the treetops?
While talking to my in-laws, one of my Facebook friends out of the blue messaged me: “From a social worker friend in Portland: ‘In case you were wondering how monstrous & cruel Americans can be, houseless people in Clackamas County, whose camps are threatened by wildfires, are not allowed in the emergency fire shelters.’”
I’ve messaged this writer to have the person contact me via email, but whatever happens, the optics are not too great if even a rumor like this is being promulgated.
This is from Counterpunch’s editor, Jeffery St. Clair: “Really thick smoke here in Oregon City this morning. I got up early and went to Clackamas Community College, about two miles southeast of us, which is serving as an evacuation center. About a thousand people camped there in RVs, cars, tents or sleeping bags out on the fields, right alongside their animals: Llamas, ponies, goats, sheep, chickens, pigs, dogs, alpacas, ducks. All seeming to get along, as if it were Dr. Doolittle’s ranch transported to Mars.”
While people are dealing with pets, animals and loved ones, as well as barns and homes being immolated by wildfire, the reality is global warming has been changing the region’s seasons. One extensive national climate assessment prepared by 13 federal agencies and released in 2018 states our Pacific Northwest has warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900.
Yes, the trend will continue into the century, with the double-whammy of warmer winters and less mountain snowpack. Those same experts know long-term changes create an unusual risk in Pacific Northwest forests: Even a modest increase in contributing factors, like days without rain, could make them much more prone to burning.
“Those are the kinds of changes that amount to taking a forest and pushing it over the edge,” said Michael Medler, a fire scientist and chair of Western Washington University’s environmental studies department.
Two years ago, I saw a report from Tim Ingalsbee, head of Firefighters United for Safety Ethics and Ecology, which is an Oregon-based nonprofit working on updating building codes. “The western slopes of the Cascades and the Northwest are just woefully unprepared,” Ingalsbee said.
While my in-laws are concerned, Darrel stated, “I’m not surprised, by the fires. But the reality of how close we are to them has stuck.”
His 72-year-old wife understands the beauty in the area they have lived in for five years attracted both them and others in droves: “We have so much beauty around us. So much vegetation, trees. We have an angus cattle ranch near us. And all those Christmas trees.”
For both her 75-year-old husband and herself, they see their Christian faith as a salve for the situation they are in. However, they know others who have lost homes and are now traumatized by the constant seasonal fear of wildfire scare have much to grapple with.
As I sign off this piece on Sept. 10, the Pearces were glued to their smartphones listening to the Clackamas County press conference. Sandy is now in a Level 2 warning. Who knows now about Sharon and Ed, the couple who just made the decision to have the wife take off and the old man stay at the property under the Level 3 evacuation warning?