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Oregon burns again in September, bringing more evidence of climate change

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Oregon burns again in September, bringing more evidence of climate change

Sep 13, 2022 | 8:30 am ET
By Naseem Rakha
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Oregon burns again in September, bringing more evidence of climate change
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The view from a wildfire tower in the central Cascades in 2022 is obscured by smoke on Sept. 11, 2022, almost two years to the day after the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. (Courtesy of Naseem Rakha)

It is September, and once again Oregon is burning.  

From my perch in a fire tower in the central Oregon Cascades, I can see nothing but smoke. Satellite images confirm that the Northwest is engulfed in dark, ashy clouds. And I wonder: Will we ever again feel that end of summer swoon that comes as the days shorten and the leaves turn and children go back to school? 

I remember the terror of the September 2020 fires that burned more than 1 million acres across Oregon. Much of it was in western Oregon where the mountains and valleys are swathed in moss and lichen and waterfalls run year-round through damp forests. The unprecedented infernos consumed everything in their path. Fire trucks, scorched. Homes, incinerated. Barns, businesses, entire forests and communities, destroyed. And the wildlife. Birds, elk, bears and deer and predators, like cougars, bobcats and badgers. Killed or displaced, just like so many people.

Across western Oregon there were quickly expanding lists of mandatory evacuations and confusion and shock. “How can this be happening?” “Weren’t we just celebrating Labor Day?” “Isn’t this supposed to be a rainforest?”

Now, here we are again, two years later almost to the date, waking to skies the color of a bad bruise — orange, purple and gray. We reach for our phones, turn on the television, talk to our neighbors and friends. “Where is it, how bad is it, and is it coming our way?” 

Deep inside we know the answer. Yes, it is coming our way. Oregon, the Northwest, the entire country, even the planet will all be affected by climate change. For some, it will be fire. For some, floods. For some, the loss of crops and livestock. For others, the loss of jobs, communities and even their own lives.

There are still some who deny climate change, calling any attempt to address the crisis a political plot. But despite their skepticism and even outright hostility to reign in our carbon footprint, important work has occurred since Oregon’s 2020 fires. 

First, the U.S. rejoined the Paris climate agreement after our former president cut us out of the deal saying it would undermine our economy. He called climate change a “hoax” promulgated by China. Then, just a month ago, President Joe Biden was able to get Congress to pass one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in decades, which allocated more than $300 billion to developing alternative forms of energy and fighting climate change. 

Progress has also been made in Oregon with last year‘s enactment of a bill worked on by both the energy industry and environmentalists. The bill aims to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of power companies by 80% by the year 2030.

On a more immediate level, Oregon has taken many steps to better prepare for the next big burn. Red flag warnings are now widely publicized to alert officials, firefighters and the public that conditions like low humidity, high temperatures and strong winds are likely to make areas vulnerable to wildfires. Last week’s red flag warnings prompted power companies to shut off electricity in certain areas to reduce the risk of fire from falling power lines, a major cause of the spread of the Labor Day fires two years ago. 

In 2021, the Legislature approved millions of dollars for fire crews, helping them hire and train more staff and allowing the state to beef up vehicles and technology and add more aerial support. Fire towers, like the one I am working in now, remain staffed with people trained to locate the tiniest hint of smoke, bucking a pre-2020 push to close the stations. We’ve also created rules encouraging people to clean up yard debris and build “harden” structures against fire.

These measures came into play when firefighters got a call about a fire in a steeply wooded and grassy area in south Salem last Friday, just four days after Labor Day.

The crew’s quick work and planning kept entire neighborhoods safe. People were given swift evacuation instructions, shelters were created and a squadron of helicopters flew in, scooping water from the Willamette River, and dumping it on the flames while 20 agencies from around the area helped fight and contain the fire that has spread to about 124 acres in less than 24 hours. 

The Salem response was a big win for planning and preparation, but we can’t always count on being so lucky. To really deal with the problem of climate change, we need to do all we can to slow its acceleration. The Biden bill was a great step forward, but much much more is needed.

I am a geologist by training. I know the earth’s climate has always changed. Glaciers come and go, and deserts, lakes and seas do the same, but we used to measure those changes in epochs and eons, not decades or years, and certainly not months and days. Humans tend to ignore things until there is a crisis. We are in a crisis. Oregon is burning. September used to be a time when we looked forward to harvests and the changing of the season. As I watch the smoke outside this fire tower, I fear it may never feel the same.