I had intended to write my blog this week about our recent trip to the Oregon coast, but events over the past week have pushed that topic to the back burner. On Tuesday an intense wildfire broke out about 15 miles south of my home in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. Beginning at the northern end of the town of Ashland, home to Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (about which I’ve written several times), it tore through the small towns of Talent and Phoenix and to the edge of Medford, a city of more than 80,000. We’d had more than a week of 100-plus-degree days, humidity in the low teens and no measurable rain since late June, and that day winds of 20 mph and gusts up to 40 mph pushed the flames up the valley to the northwest.
All afternoon I could trace the path of the fire by observing the billowing plumes of smoke creeping slowly closer. Around 5 p.m. we learned my mother-in-law’s senior living complex at the south end of Medford was under a Level 2 evacuation notice. (Level 1 is “Get ready,” Level 2 is “Get set to leave” and Level 3 is “Go now!”) She had been restricted from visiting us in our home since mid-March due to COVID safety measures, but now the facilities’ managers were happy to let us pick her up so they wouldn’t have to evacuate her to another facility or shelter. We stayed tuned in to news reports (sadly, our local stations were not terribly helpful in providing up-to-the-minute details).
Though the winds let up some later in the evening, we learned our community of Central Point was now under Level 2 orders. We decided we should pack a small suitcase and gather essential papers, documents and a few valuables, and then around 9:30 p.m. we received email, text and phone alerts that the evacuation level had jumped to 3. Computers and suitcases were hustled to the car, but we consulted with our neighbors before deciding to pull out. Jay is a former fire chief, and his son-in-law is a local firefighter. There was a concern that someone might be lighting fires in the nearby greenway, leading to the Level 3 alert, but all seemed quiet nearby. Thankfully, the alert level soon dropped back down, and we went to bed around midnight with the car still packed in case we needed to leave on short notice.
The next day we began to see pictures and hear details of the devastation the Almeda fire had wrought in Talent and Phoenix, displacing hundreds of people and wiping out more than 600 homes and scores of businesses. More than a thousand people were sheltering at the nearby fairgrounds, some fleeing another fire to our northeast which, over the last four days, has expanded to more than 20,000 acres. With only light breezes and blue skies overhead, we hoped we were out of the woods. Then, around 3 p.m., our neighbors alerted us to a huge plume of smoke rising just a mile or so south of us, and we jumped immediately to Level 3 again. We didn’t question leaving this time, and with everything already in the car, we were pulling out in about 5 minutes. With just a few routes out of the neighborhood, it took us some time to get out of the development and head north to stay at our daughter’s friends’ house about 10 miles away.
Following a creeping line of cars directed away from streets blocked off by officers, we were able to observe the air tankers dropping retardant and helicopters dropping buckets of water close at hand. With the airport close by, we watched as the tankers came in to refill and then circle around to swoop low over the fire to drop their loads. I’d never seen them operate over such a populated area and at such close range before; the pilots’ skill was impressive.
The all-out effort to keep the flames from entering the neighborhoods paid off, and we were able to return home before nightfall, even though right up ’til now we are still at a Level 2 evacuation alert. The past two days have been cooler as a thick, choking blanket of smoke has engulfed all of western Oregon.
I ventured out today and noted the fine particles of ash settling on my plants and the thick pall of smoke that obscured the houses at the end of my street. I drove a few miles to the site of Wednesday’s fire start, right alongside Interstate 5 (where it even burned into the center median).
The intensity of the flames was evident in the white ash and the lack of any vegetation smaller than full-grown trees and the largest limbs.
These fires have really hit close to home, though I am blessed that our house and that of my daughter are unscathed. Across Oregon as of today 36 active wildfires burn and have already scorched more than 1 million acres. Around 500,000 of the state’s residents have been or are under an evacuation alert, and thousands have lost their homes. No one knows yet how many lives have been lost, but scores are missing, and the economic toll, coming on top of the pandemic’s losses, will be staggering. Cooler temperatures are forecast in the next several days, but the drenching rains of fall that will be needed to fully douse the fires are still weeks — if not months — away. In the meantime, Oregonians are pulling together and helping each other and praying for a respite.
— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor
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