Living with Fires and Smoke in Southern Oregon

Gray skies. Thick, smoky air. A diffused, orange sun. These are becoming the telltale signs of summer on the west coast. Southern Oregon was hit especially hard last summer by the Chetco Bar Fire which burned approximately 190,000 acres in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. After the most expensive fire season on record in 2017, Oregon is having catastrophic fire damage once again in 2018, and this summer it came early. On July 8, a lightning storm ignited approximately 100 wildfires in the Rogue Valley. Some of these are still burning, most notably the Klondike Fire, which was recently upgraded to a megafire. Most of the summer the air quality index in the area has been at unhealthy levels.

It’s hard to talk about natural disasters without considering climate change. Folks who grew up here in the Rogue Valley say this is not normal. Most recall the Biscuit Fire of 2002 as a bellwether event in southern Oregon and say the fires since then seem more intense and frequent. If it feels hotter, that’s because it is hotter. According to the National Weather Service, the five hottest months of July ever recorded in Medford have all taken place in the last six years. And eight of the 10 hottest Julys have occurred since 2000.

It’s easy to throw up our hands at the prospect of making a difference in such a gargantuan problem. The ongoing saga between the Department of Forestry, the timber industry and environmental advocates has a long and complicated history. But the politics of forestry notwithstanding, the fact remains that humans are directly responsible for starting the vast majority of forest fires, nearly 84% by some estimates. Oregon felt that loss firsthand last summer with the Eagle Creek Fire, which was ignited by fireworks, and which burned nearly fifty thousand acres in the historic Columbia River Gorge.

The human impact is something we can easily help by being more careful, educating ourselves and looking for alternatives. For example, some cities in the western U.S. have even opted to celebrate Independence Day using a drone light show instead of fireworks.

Here are some things we can all do today to reduce the risk of forest fires:

  • Be aware of the fire danger level. If you live in a fire-prone area or are visiting one, there are very specific parameters for certain outdoor activities depending on the season. Before you ignite that burn pile or even mow the lawn, check the rules on your city or county’s website for what is allowed. Keep in mind that sometimes the rules can change from one day to the next in extreme weather.
  • Learn about campfire safety. Heading to the great outdoors? Some national parks and national forests may not allow campfires at certain times of year. Know before you go, and if campfires are allowed, learn the safest ways to ignite and extinguish them. Follow those same protocols wherever or whenever you make a campfire.
  • Consider celebrating without fireworks. Not only have they sent thousands of people to the emergency room, but fireworks are also a trigger for veterans and PTSD sufferers. If you must blow things up, it’s best to pass on the riskiest types of fireworks such as roman candles and bottle rockets, or even better, to choose the kind that do not get airborne. If you do light fireworks, do it in a wide open space and stay away from fire fuels such as dry grass. Make sure to have a hose or wet towels nearby to fully extinguish all sparks and flames. Carefully check the area for embers before you leave.

When fires do occur, we are forever grateful to the firefighters, support staff and volunteers who help contain and manage the fires, often at great risk to themselves. This year, the efforts in Oregon include more than 6,000 personnel across multiple agencies handling firefighting, evacuations, air traffic control, prevention, containment and communications. We can show them even more appreciation by doing our part to mitigate fire danger where we can easily make a big difference and by helping to educate others.