As September comes to an end, wildfires continue to burn across the West Coast.
Washington, Oregon and California have faced the brunt of the danger, with 10 of thousands displaced from their homes and millions of acres burned. The fires have killed at least 26 people so far in California alone, according to The Washington Post, and a hot weather trend that began last weekend in the Northern part of the state threatens to further increase the risk of fire.
This year continues the upward trend of out of control fires that have punctuated national news cycles each fall in recent years. All of the top five years with the largest wildfire acreage burned since 1960 have occurred between 2006 and 2019, according to Congressional Research Service wildfire statistics. The top two years were 2017 and 2015, both of which saw over 10 million acres burned nationwide. So far in 2020, wildfires have burned 6.7 million acres.
Baldwin native Zach Walker has been living in Lincoln, Ore., since the beginning of this summer. Walker traveled west to take part in the Oregon Extension, a program that provides college students a semester of nontraditional learning in the Cascade Mountain Range.
Lincoln is around 25 miles east of Ashland, Ore., where the Almeda fire sparked on Sept. 8. The fire pushed north into the towns of Talent and Phoenix, Ore., burning a total of 3,200 acres and forcing thousands to evacuate. Three people were killed in the fire, which was listed as 100% contained on Sept. 15, according to The Oregonian.
The fire did not directly impact Walker, but the instructors at the Oregon Extension did prep them for evacuation.
“We had to be ready if the winds changed and pushed something into us, which it did not,” he said. “We were never in any real, intense danger.”
Walker said having experienced staff and instructors around him helped ease tensions, but that it was still a bit disconcerting for someone from Wisconsin cow country.
“I’ve never experienced this, having lived my whole life in the Midwest,” he said. “So it’s wild to be out here.”
Although the Almeda fire never turned their direction, smoke from the fires around Portland, Ore., and those in Northern California sometimes blanketed the camp.
“These past couple of years, forest fires have become so much more prolific in the west, so I kind of had it in the back of my mind that maybe it would be a thing,” he said. “But then when the smoke started coming in, it was very visual, very stimulating.”
Being socked in by smoke brought the experience from abstract to practical.
“Everybody here at the program loves the outdoors and wants to spend as much time outside as possible, and we couldn’t do that because of the smoke. And then we were hearing stories of people just down the mountain losing everything,” he said. “It was right away, something that was a little shocking.”
Walker’s instructors echoed the national dialogue about the severity of recent fires.
“My professors, who’ve lived out here for a long time, say these past couple of years have been way more intense than anything they’ve ever experienced,” he said. “More fires, more danger, more changing.”
It has long been the practice of forest management organizations like the U.S. Forest Service to aggressively extinguish forest fires. Over time, this leads to a buildup in dead and dying timber, along with other fuel sources that would normally be cleared away by intermittent fires. Excess fuel means when a fire does start, it burns longer, hotter and potentially more out of control.
Simultaneously, climate change has created longer, hotter and dryer fire seasons. Combine the two and you’ve got a perfect storm of sorts, which has lead in large part to these devastating fires.
A pillar of the Oregon Extension’s classes is sustainability, so it seems appropriate that Walker and the other students have witnessed the results of unsustainable forest practices and unsustainable carbon emissions firsthand this fall.
There seems no better group of people to affect change on both those fronts than a few dozen young students spending a semester in the mountains, thinking deeply about what they want their future to look like.
C.L. Sill can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @thewingbeat