Oregon fires a cautionary tale in worsening drought

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When wildfires erupted around the state of Oregon last fall, residents noticed something different. The raging wildfires were more intense and faster-moving than anyone had seen and were burning in places known for their significant rainfall and wet, lush conditions.

Record fires burned 4,000 homes in a 72-hour period. Winds gusting to 80 mph pushed the flames in a firestorm reminiscent of California’s worst blazes and flames devastated communities a stone’s throw from rainy Portland and on the Oregon Coast.

Fires also hit areas in southern Oregon with devastating effect, chewing through hundreds of homes in mobile home villages in urban areas right off Interstate 5 not normally impacted by fire.

The blazes were fueled by an extremely unusual wind event, but tinder-dry conditions not normally seen in Oregon made the fires much worse, said Larry O’Neill, the climatologist for the state of Oregon. O’Neill says he himself came upon a fire last Labor Day weekend after taking a hike on the Oregon Coast and was stunned at how quickly it spread.

“In the Pacific Northwest, we’re going to experience an earlier melt-out of snow, drier and warmer summers and increase fuel dryness all around so what this will mean is that we’ll have a longer fire season generally and a more intense fire season,” O’Neill said.

“These sort of conditions are very much like what California has been experiencing in the past 30, 40 years. So our fire season is going to start looking very much like California’s.”

In the tiny coastal community of Otis, a temperate rainforest where it rains three-quarters of the year, residents watched in disbelief last September as nearly 300 homes went up like matchboxes. Roughly 1,000 residents were homeless overnight and about 100 of those people still remain without permanent housing because they were uninsured or underinsured for fire.

Among them is the Small family. The family of seven – parents, four kids and a grandfather – fled the flames that consumed their home and dozens of chickens they kept in a pen outside. They received $50,000 from their insurance – not enough to buy a new manufactured home — and are now paying $2,000 a month for a Comfort Inn motel room for their kids. The parents, Tye and Melynda Small, sleep in a travel trailer they park in the motel’s parking lot.

“We prepare for a tsunami because that’s what’s drilled into our head: ‘Be prepared for a tsunami. Be prepared for an earthquake.’ Nobody ever thought that on the Oregon Coast we would have a fire like this,” Melynda Small said, as she picked over the wreckage of her home.

“And we’re coming up on fire season again and so it’s just really scary knowing that we haven’t had the precipitation that we usually do because usually here in Otis, Lincoln City it rains. It rains three-quarters of the year.”

The Smalls have kept busy, working tirelessly to help their neighbors in Otis get back on their feet even as they have no place to call home. The couple helped clear charred metal and asbestos from dozens of properties last fall and are now volunteering with several organizations, including the Cascade Relief Team and Landscaping with Love.

Melynda Small knows everyone, and gets a text message each time a new manufactured home is delivered for a lucky neighbor. She makes sure to go see it installed and takes photos that she posts on a community Facebook page.

“Thirty-eight or something new homes that have been brought in, all over Otis, and I think five ‘stick builds’ that are going up,” she said, referring to homes that are being built from the ground up with wood framing.

“It’s actually a lot of progress. It seems like it’s been really fast, but it’s been almost a year. I think the time is just going by faster for me because I’ve been so busy doing all of the other things, keeping my mind busy, my hands busy.”

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