I wish I had done a better job of documenting the time I spent at the Detroit Ranger District the summer after my first year of college. I wish I had written down where we hooted for Northern Spotted Owls, planted trees, and conducted stream surveys. I spent my 19th birthday reconstructing trails in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness—my crewmates stuck a candle in a freeze dried dessert and made me a crown of Douglas fir branches to mark the occasion.
Maybe it was a natural progression for me to be there, working in the woods, preceded as it was by a childhood trailing after my mom and her colleagues at the Sweet Home Ranger District on the other side of the Willamette National Forest, south of Detroit. Take Your Daughter to Work Day was spent learning how to read maps, walking streams with the fisheries biologist.
And every summer, the ubiquitous red fire bag stood ready in the hallway. The anxious waiting for a call. Sometimes a kiss on the head in the middle of the night as one of my parents (now retired from forest management) were called away on fire duty.
Working now from home in Portland, the woods of my youth feel far away. But the smoke clouding the sky tells a different story. As some have written, the ghosts of trees are filling the air.
At this moment, as thousands have had to abandon their homes across the northwest, my family in Sweet Home is at a Level I evacuation warning—get ready, stay vigilant, stay informed, but no need to evacuate just yet—prompting a certain mix of anxiety and gratitude that is starting to feel very familiar. I know my colleagues can relate: Many of us have family in Northern California where orange skies are covering San Francisco as fires from the “August Lightning Siege of 2020” keep burning, hope resting in the resilience of the Redwoods. Still others, like me, are connected to small towns in the foothills of the Cascades, getting pinged every 30 minutes with a new evacuation notice from Ashland, through Roseburg, Eugene, and points north—all in the path of active, unpredictable fires. Fortunately, for now, the homes of our loved ones are intact, but some friends and neighbors have lost everything. For those of us in the Portland metro, the Clackamas County evacuation map keeps bleeding closer and closer to home. Colleagues in Washington are safe, but sitting in smoke from Seattle to Spokane.
Inveterate information hounds, my fellow Ecotrusters have had maps of fire boundaries, evacuation zones, traffic patterns, and air quality on frequent refresh for the better part of the past two days—some for the past two weeks. In various ways, we are navigating the quickly changing and incredibly challenging emotions at the intersection of natural disaster, personal tragedy, pandemic, and the fight for racial justice. We’re keeping in close contact with our families and with each other. And our thoughts are with all affected.
I’m worried that “unprecedented” is losing its teeth for me. It has become the status quo. A mild summer followed by a fire storm is beyond shocking, but not out of character for this wildly unpredictable year. Out of necessity, the ingenuity and leadership of Pacific Northwesterners is being spent responding to disaster after disaster. It’s all too much. However, one hopes that maybe this “wet side” fire system will finally be enough to drive home the need for meaningful commitments to climate policy. For recognizing the full impact of racism and displacement of indigenous land stewards. For deep compassion and steady collaboration.
The maps and resources below have been helpful in monitoring the places that are special to us and staying informed about our loved ones who live there. In time, we’ll chart a course for what comes next, together.
Fire perimeters and evacuation zones
State of Oregon Fires and Hotspots Dashboard
Includes county by county real time evacuation zones
Top photo: A neighborhood in Sweet Home, Ore., set against a smoke-darkened sky, by Megan’s mom, Donna Short.