Last fall’s firestorms serve as warning of worsening drought in Oregon


Melynda Small stands in front of a house that burned down in the Echo Mountain fire in Otis, Ore. On Thursday May. 13, 2020. Experts say Oregon’s 2020 wildland fire season was a taste of what lies ahead, as climate change makes fires more likely and more destructive, even in wetter and more humid climates. cooler like the Pacific Northwest.

Craig Mitchelldyer / AP

The smoke from the wildfires was thick when Tye and Melynda Small went to bed on Labor Day, but they weren’t too worried. After all, they live in a part of Oregon where ferns grow on tree trunks and rainfall averages over 6 feet per year.

But just after midnight, a neighbor woke them up as towering flames, driven by gusts of wind, descended. The Smalls and their four children fled, leaving behind 26 pet chickens, two goldfish and a duck named Gerard as the wind turned the blaze into a fiery tornado and trees exploded around them.

When it was over, they found themselves homeless by a peril they never imagined. Only two houses on their street in Otis survived a fire they believed to be under control long before it reached their door within 10 miles of the Pacific.

“No one ever thought that on the Oregon coast we would have a fire like this. It’s raining here. It rains three quarters of the year, “said Melynda Small.” It was one of the scariest things I have ever experienced.

The blaze that wiped out the rural community of 3,500 people was part of a wildfire season in Oregon last fall that destroyed more than 4,000 homes, killed nine people and raged over 1.1 million acres. Almost all of the damage happened in the hellish 72 hours that pushed firefighters to their breaking point.

Rubble of a house destroyed by fire.

The remains of a house that burned down in the Echo Mountain fire are seen in Otis, Ore. On Thursday, May. 13, 2020. The small coastal town of Oregon is still recovering from the devastating fire that destroyed 293 homes.

Craig Mitchelldyer / AP

Driven by unusually strong winds, fires ravaged the temperate rainforest a short drive from the ocean, crept within 30 miles of downtown Portland, razed thousands of homes and businesses along Interstate 5 and wiped out communities that cater to outdoor enthusiasts.

It was a wake-up call for the Pacific Northwest as climate change causes destructive fires that are more like California’s annual fire seat in damp places and cityscapes once thought to be isolated. . And as the western United States enters another year of drought, Oregon is now entering fire season amid some of the worst conditions in memory.

The state experienced its driest April in 80 years, and during the normally humid months of March and April it had the lowest rainfall since 1924. Several fires started this week, triggering evacuations and road closures as temperatures soared.

Marc Brooks, who founded Waterfall rescue team to help victims of last fall’s fires statewide, said that in April his group had been put on four alert for wildfires at a time when “we should have snow, no drought “.

Global warming means the snow on Oregon’s famous peaks is melting earlier, leaving the soil and vegetation parched in late summer, even if it rains, said Erica Fleishman, director of Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.

The fires last fall were sparked by strong and sustained winds “extremely rare”, and in combination with the arid conditions, a major forest fire was almost inevitable, she said. “If we had a spark – and every time we have people we have a spark – there was a high probability that a fire would ignite.”

The fire on the Oregon coast is not unprecedented. A series of fires that began in the 1930s burned 355,000 acres in what is known as the Tillamook Burn. In 1936, a blaze caused by the wind killed 10 people in the seaside town of Bandon.

But what happened last fall in western Oregon was extreme, said Larry O’Neill, Oregon state climatologist.

The Cascade Mountains stretch north to south and separate the notoriously rainy part of the state to the west and the drier climate to the east, where fires typically burn in less populated areas. Last year multiple fires raged in the western Cascades where “you think it’s a rainforest with ferns” and closer to population centers, O’Neill said.

“I thought we still had about a generation to line up our ducks to prepare for this, and these past two fire seasons here have been a huge wake-up call that we’re experiencing now,” O’Neill said.

A fire in southwestern Oregon destroyed thousands of homes in two cities along Interstate 5 and was unique to Oregon as it was fueled by homes, gas stations and restaurants from fast food – not by the forest, said Doug Grafe, chief of the Oregon forestry department. .

“Losing the number of communities that we have made is eye-opening,” he said. “It’s new ground for Oregon, but California was the canary in the coal mine.”

Last fall, this new reality reshaped the lives of Smalls – and the lives of hundreds of other Oregon residents – in just hours. The Echo Mountain fire burned nearly 300 homes and displaced approximately 1,000 people.

Like many of their neighbors, the Smalls were underinsured and lacked wildfire coverage for their white house with green borders. They bounced back for weeks – an emergency evacuation site, camping near a stream and staying with relatives in Washington state.

An insurance payment of $ 50,000 was not enough to buy a manufactured home big enough for their family. Eight months after the fire, the money is used to keep their children in a single room at a local Comfort Inn, while parents sleep in a borrowed trailer outside.

The family had two state-paid rooms, but when the wildfire survivors were asked to move to another motel, the Smalls decided to stay and pay their own way rather than uprooting their family again. . They said they were not eligible for federal disaster assistance and that the pandemic cost Tye Small his job as a gas station attendant.

“Our 5 year old daughter, she had a lot of trouble. She kept saying … ‘We have to go home. We have to feed the fish. We have to feed the chickens, ”said Melynda Small, looking at the ruins of her house. “And so we had to bring him here to show him that we didn’t need to come and feed the fish or feed the chickens.”

A prefabricated house in the distance with cleared land with some remains of fire in the foreground.

A new manufactured home is delivered to a property in Otis, Ore. On Thursday, May. 13, 2020.

Craig Mitchelldyer / AP

Unsure of the future, the couple have spent entire days helping neighbors clean up their properties and serving as cheerleaders for the devastated community while their children – ages 18, 15, 9 and 5 – do their homework at the motel.

Whenever a new manufactured home is delivered to a fire survivor, Melynda Small is there in her “Otis Strong” sweatshirt, beaming with excitement and taking pictures for a community Facebook page. According to its latest tally, there are 38 new manufactured homes and six “stick builds” underway.

This spring, pink tulips that she had planted in front of her house, under the kitchen window, bloomed in the ashes.

“It’s actually a lot of progress. Looks like it’s been really quick, but it’s been almost a year, “she said.” I think time flies faster for me because I’ve been so busy doing all the other things, to keep my mind busy, my hands busy.


AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Kensington, Maryland.


The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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