Labor Day weekend 2020 in Oregon was hot and dry, but it had already been a hot, dry summer. That's not so unusual anymore in the Willamette Valley where I live. The forecast for that weekend called for strong winds from the east early, which was unusual.
The outlook quickly turned even more grim before those winds arrived, though. Meteorologists expected gusts of 40 to 50 mph (64 to 80 kmh) in the Portland area. It was late summer, but we hadn't had any of the soaking rain the Pacific Northwest is known for in months, so the trees were a tinderbox. Oregonians from Portland in the north to Medford in the south — a distance of more than 400 miles (643 kilometers) — were warned of the extreme danger of wildfires. Residents were also advised that the electric company would be shutting off the power in anticipation of downed lines in a very dry forest.
This is sometimes what it's like living through fire season. Oregon, along with California, Washington and other western states, has one every year. But conditions for 2020 have been unprecedented, but not unpredictable. In May, Newsweek reported, "Forecasters are predicting that southwestern Oregon will experience the wildfires first, but the threat of large fire potential is expected to engulf the entire region by August."
Why Are Fire Conditions Worsening?
But fire season is getting worse. We know they are getting longer here in the West; and average temperatures are higher and as a result snowmelt has increased. Cal Fire put it very plainly:
The Oregon Department of Forestry also noted in April that the last time conditions in southwest Oregon were dry enough to declare the start of fire season at the beginning of May was in 1968. Since then, the region has declared the start of fire season in May just three times, and all have been in the last 20 years: 2001, 2006 and 2020.
So by the time the winds came around Labor Day this year, southwest Oregon was in danger from the tiniest spark. And when the wind came, it was powerful and relentless. It blew down trees and power lines, and it did spark fires, just as predicted. Lots of fires. By Tuesday, Sept. 8, dozens of fires were raging widely across Oregon, burning hot and fast and fanned by the winds. Small fires merged into large fire complexes. They threatened and even engulfed communities, burning down hundreds of homes and entire towns.
Thick smoke settled over Portland for nearly two weeks. The city was choked with the worst air quality in the world and we had nowhere to escape. Smoke and fire were everywhere we looked.
My neighborhood was never in any immediate danger, but the orange ball of the sun hanging in the sky like the Eye of Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings" was enough to convince me to have a bag packed and ready to go if necessary — a first for me in the 20 or so years I've lived here. I even emailed friends in a nearby town to plan for where we'd go if we had to leave. I constantly checked the fire and air quality map, the local forecast and the InciWeb site for the nearest fire — and even added shortcuts to them on my cellphone.
I wore the N95 mask I purchased for the COVID-19 pandemic for the first time. The cotton masks I'd been using wouldn't keep out wildfire smoke and particles, I learned. My husband and I even put wet towels against our doors and ran two air purifiers with HEPA filters on high. We didn't leave the house for 10 days. We were more housebound during the fires than we had been in the early days of Oregon's stay at home orders for coronavirus containment.