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Wildfires rage in Oregon, California. Could weather soon bring relief?

Lindsay Schnell USA TODAY

Published 4:27 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020

Thousands of people affected by severe fires in Oregon and California could get some relief in the coming days. If the weather continues to cooperate.

Fires have ravaged the West over the past week, destroying hundreds of homes. Though a longer, hotter, more destructive fire season has become the norm on the West Coast, the past week was notable because of the number of fires blazing in urban areas, threatening what had been considered “safe” communities.

It is particularly bad in Oregon, where more than 1 million acres are burning statewide. Ten deaths have been reported, and two small towns have been wiped out close to the state’s border with California.

Rich Tyler has worked in firefighting for more than two decades. He’s never seen anything this bad. 

“This is a tragedy, what’s occurred across the entire state of Oregon,” said Tyler, the Oregon Fire Marshal’s Office’s spokesman on the Almeda Fire. “We’ve had large fires, but not ones that have impacted this many communities and people all at one time.” 

Wildfires have burned millions of acres across the West: See what that looks like

Reminders of devastation are everywhere: buildings and cars burnt to a crisp, piles of ash where businesses once stood. Hazardous smoke is choking the entire coast, forcing people to stay inside.  

Clarissa Carson, a lifelong resident of southern Oregon, said she’s desperate for “just one day of blue sky – but we’re only gonna get that with wind, and we don’t want wind!” 

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Slater and Devil fires in the Klamath National Forest in Northern California, which have burned more than 136,000 acres and led to the evacuation of 3,500 people, were 5% contained.

But officials can find the silver linings: The evacuation order for Happy Camp, California, a town of about 1,200, was reduced to an evacuation warning, and the focus has shifted from protection of life and structures to a “bigger containment strategy,” according to Adrienne Freeman, the interagency public information officer.

“That’s a really good thing,” Freeman said. “Because we’re at a point now where we can be more strategic.” 

Though air quality remains hazardous, Freeman hadn’t heard anything about heavy winds, which played a role in the West’s rapidly spreading fires. 

It’s too early, Freeman said, to speculate on containment dates, but “I think if we see stable air, we’ll continue to get containment lines down.” Labeling herself “realistic,” Freeman said that so long as the weather pattern stays consistent, “we’ll have opportunities to do good work.” 

‘Worst-case scenario’: On front lines of the California wildfires, residents stunned by fast-moving blazes

Farther north, a lot of good work has already been done by crews in Medford, Oregon, battling to contain the Almeda Fire, which ravaged the small towns of Talent, pop. 6,500, and Phoenix, pop. 4,600.

The fire has affected more than 42,000 people and destroyed at least 700 structures, including 600 homes. The cause of the fire is under investigation, and many residents remain without power or running water. 

That fire is 70% contained, according to Tyler, though fire containment in an urban setting is dramatically different from a wildland fire.

Containing an urban fire involves not just reducing flames but mitigating hazards in the area, which includes venting natural gas lines and dealing with debris, unstable structures and downed power lines. Crews have done that over 70% of the area, aided by Utah Taskforce 1, an urban search-and-rescue team assessing structural damage and potential fire hazards.

“Unaffected areas and neighborhoods, we’re letting people back in, they deserve to go home,” Tyler said. The sheriff’s office escorted some people back to their homes, so they could grab valuables before leaving for shelter again. 

‘Everything’s gone’: Many neighborhoods destroyed as fire, smoke devastate Oregon families, workers and homeless

Three people have died in the Almeda Fire but, according to authorities, everyone who was initially reported missing in the fire zone is accounted for. There are 48 firefighters and 12 engines working the fire, and 24 members of the National Guard help control traffic. At least 50 more National Guard members are expected in town Tuesday. 

The toll of what they’ve lost is starting to dawn on community members.  

Monday, Carson, 43, an intensive care unit nurse at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, spent her lunch hour recounting dozens of heartbreaking conversations with colleagues over the past week.

“Can you hear me OK?” she asked. “We’ve got a big air blower set up in the ICU to keep the smoke out, and it’s kind of loud.” 

Carson’s home is still standing, but she knows dozens who aren’t as fortunate.

Carson, a Medford native, works at the hospital where she was born and has spent most of the past week talking about the fires (“How many do you know who lost everything?”), worrying about the effects (“Is this hazardous air quality going to have a long-term impact on my daughter?”), dealing with the choking smoke (“My allergies are out of control, I’m in a constant state of sickness.”) and consoling friends and colleagues who lost everything (“I’m glad I can be there for them, but what do you say?”) 

‘Don’t come back until you find him’: The harrowing story of a father’s desperate attempt to save his son in the Oregon wildfires

Last week, when the fire forced Rogue Regional to evacuate its ICU patients, a colleague told Carson, “I think my house might be burning down right now.” Then she went back to work, prepping patients who needed to leave immediately. 

“It feels like a war zone,” Carson said. “To this community, it’s like Armageddon. And the smoke really impacts that feeling, because you can’t escape it.” Everyone is worried – about friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Winter is coming, she said, and the housing shortage is going to be real. 

As Carson and her colleagues care for patients, they deal with their own ailments, from burning eyes and scratchy throats to crippling migraines and endless coughing. That’s just the physical effects.

“We’ve reached burnout,” Carson said. “Terror burnout.” 

Published 4:27 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020

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