I made my first solo journey in nearly a year. I loaded up the car with items I did not pack for previous trips – Lysol wipes, masks, gloves, pillow, sleeping bag, towel. Even though I had booked a very fine cottage with all sorts of amenities, ensuring I would come into contact with very few people, I took care to be safe. As I told my sister-in-law: I never again want to be as sick as I was last February.
After an hour spent packing the car, and another hour spent chasing down Hemingway who had escaped the porch as I was loading the car, I was off.
Tim checked the weather for me and gave the go-ahead. Konnie rechecked it and mapped out the safest route over the mountain pass. Even so, there was elevation in January to deal with, which meant it was snowing. Big flakes.
Once off the mountain, however, the snow globe scenery changed rapidly to one of charred remains. Perhaps you heard of the wildfires that tore through Oregon in September?
Over a million acres burned. Over 4,000 homes burned down.
I, like many, followed the news of the fires from the safety of my own home. I read the horrific tales of families fleeing. Heard the accounts repeated on Oregon Public Broadcasting. Heard the planes roaring overhead for days on end as they tried to control the fires from the skies.
I knew the communities. Had driven through them for decades as we made our way to the Willamette Valley to visit family and friends. I knew the restaurants and the rest stops. The ones near Detroit Lake and Breitenbush, always packed with cars and RVs, with kayakers and fishermen. All reduced to rubble now.
I couldn’t help but think of the people.
The ones who fled.
Half a million people fled.
Half a million.
In Oregon alone.
More than 10 percent of the state’s population evacuated according to the Oregon Department of Emergency Management.
Not all made it out.
There was 12-year old Wyatt and his grandmother Peggy. His grandmother had a broken leg. His charred remains was found in the car along with his grandmother’s, and his dog, which he held in his lap.
George Atiyeh, renowned environmentalist and nephew of one of Oregon’s former governors, also died. This seems particularly cruel given that Atiyeh spent a great deal of his life fighting to protect the woods and rivers he loved so much.
The charred debris of lives lived and lost are piled alongside the roadways for miles upon miles. The once luminescent forests that glowed with lime green lichen reduced to heaps of blackened broken bones laying slanchwise up the hillsides.
And what about the birds? The rabbits? The deer? The fish? The squirrels? The racoons? The creepy-crawlies? The horses? The dogs? The cats?
They did not all make it to safety.
For days on end, we could not leave our homes because the smoke was so intense. Our phones warned us that the air quality was “Hazardous”. Of course, we could look outside our windows and see that. Our entire world had turned the color of wood smoke.
We needed masks, not just for the pandemic. We needed masks to keep from breathing in the toxins burning.
All the air filters around town were sold out. In two days time our HEPA filter was charred simply from trying to keep the inside air clean.
The conspiracy theorists were out in full force, declaring these fires were being set by Antifa, by Democrats, by environmentalists.
Governor Kate Brown summed it up accurately: “We are seeing the acute impacts of climate change.”
Get a rake and sweep the forest floor, President Trump told the victims of the fires that devastated Paradise, California.
Don’t get me started.
At one point, I called my daughter, who had spent a summer as an Oregon wildlands firefighter, and described to her what I was seeing.
It’s so surreal to be driving past all this devastation and then seeing this lime green growth sprouting up, I said.
I know, Ashley replied. I’ve seen it before. And those grasses come back so fast. Sometimes within a week.
The beloved writer, Barry Lopez, who passed away recently, wrote of his own evacuation during the wildfires:
“Our home and guest house are damaged but still standing. All of our outbuildings are gone, including a large archive building, along with 25 acres of mature, temperate-zone rain forest. The land around us as far as we can see looks flayed. For 10 miles in both directions along the river from us, all that stands where a whole community once lived are bare chimneys. The devastation for some is catastrophic and irreparable.”