I live in Oregon, only a few miles north of the California border. The local paper of record, The Medford Mail Tribune, arrives with close observation of the daily events that animate Jackson County, from the sudden emergence of hemp production as a primary agricultural enterprise (“2018 – The Year of Hemp”) to the celebration of local teams (“Crater High School, Home of the Comets, 5A State Champions in baseball!”). Big news at the start of the new year is that motorists may now take dead deer and elk from “grille to grill”, as the paper so tastefully put it.
The paper arrives each day with a large box bordered in red on the front page announcing the number of days left until the start of Fire Season. I wasn’t expecting that sort of countdown to be part of my daily life here, but then, I hadn’t expected to live next to a hemp field or to cheer the Crater Comets. We moved to the Rogue Valley from Coastal California, a quiet beach town halfway between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Our home was adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest. It’s a large forest; its tendrils stretch from Palmdale in the Antelope Valley to Atascadero in San Luis Obispo County, almost three thousand square miles, almost two million acres. The forest has a second location in Monterey County, including the Big Sur coast.
When we arrived in 1996, Santa Barbarans still talked about the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, a fire that burned about five thousand acres, a fire blazing at a height of more than seventy feet at its worst, a fire caused by arson during a hot spell in which the temperature had reached 108 degrees. We knew several families who had lost homes in that fire, most of whom rebuilt in the same area, in the canyons and passes between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. During our time in Santa Barbara County, we saw ten more fires move quickly as Sundowner Winds brought by high pressure to the north preceded the Santa Ana Winds charging from the south. We had moved to Oregon just before the Thomas Fire, pushed by the Santa Ana winds, swept from Santa Paula in Ventura County to Santa Barbara, torching almost three hundred thousand acres, destroying more than a thousand homes, and bringing about two billion dollars in damage to the area.
Fire is now a way of life in this region. The causes are many and blame moves at the speed of a Santa Ana blast. Timothy Egan’s remarkable book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that saved America, published in 2009, documented the Fire of 1910, a fire that destroyed an area of Idaho and Montana the size of the State of Connecticut in a weekend. It’s a book of large purpose, examining the impact of the fire as well as its causes, and it’s a book I used in 2010 as the central point of focus in a school wide exercise in inquiry as it presented issues of immigration, large-scale exploitation of the western lands, and the emergence of a progressive movement resulting in the establishment of National Parks and the conservation of public land.
It wasn’t a hit.
Although the region had been damaged by eight large fires at that time, the small town in which we lived and taught had escaped danger. We drove through fire ravaged areas, but we hadn’t faced evacuation and the loss of our own homes. The Thomas Fire changed all that. The school’s playing fields were used by firefighters from around the world as the base from which the Thomas Fire was fought. Before the fire was contained, all students and all teachers had been evacuated. The book appears more prescient now.
Southern Oregon was devastated last summer by raging fire to the south and north, resulting in a period of about six weeks in which heavy smoke so filled the valley that readings of air quality determined the daily business of the region, essentially devastating towns such as Ashland, dependent on income earned during the summer months. We’ve come to expect summer after summer of extreme fire events as global warming has altered the landscape and high temperatures accelerate winds carrying fire to the region.
152 Days until Fire Season. It’s the new reality and one we are only starting to understand.