Climate change brings Santa Ana-like winds and explosive wildfires to Oregon
Nearly nine months pregnant, Elisha Goodrick was cooking chicken piccata Monday evening when she noticed something eerie — weather like she had never experienced in western Oregon.
It was strange enough to see ash falling like snow outside her kitchen window as a wildfire galloped through mountainsides somewhere above.
But what alarmed her was the pounding on the roof as an extraordinary wind raged in the tops of Douglas firs, raining branches on the blue-shingled house.
It wasn’t long before a volunteer-firefighter friend called.
„Get out now,” he said.
The Holiday Farm fire was quickly approaching their little town of Rainbow. Goodrick grabbed her hospital go-kit. Her fiance, James Rethaford, seized a diaper bag and a favorite quilt stitched by his late grandmother.
They loaded their year-old son Korbin into their old Buick and raced west down the valley toward Eugene.
“We didn’t wait for the Level 3 warning, we just took off,” said Rethaford, sitting on a cooler Wednesday in front of an evacuation center. “I’m 95% sure the house is gone.”
As for the roaring winds that night, scientists say that they were the equivalent of the notorious Santa Anas of Southern California.
Their rare appearance in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest is almost certainly due to climate change, according to researchers.
And like the winds that race down the mountainsides near Los Angeles each fall, gaining heat and fanning the flames as they go, the gales that struck Oregon over the weekend have turned small fires into infernos.
The state is experiencing its worst fires in memory, with at least three deaths — including a woman and her 13-year-old grandson — and swaths of two small cities — Phoenix and Talent — burned to the ground.
Hundreds of homes and other structures have been destroyed. Skies have turned bright orange or dark gray across the western part of the state, which is experiencing some of the worst air quality ever recorded.
On Thursday, 39 separate fires burned across the state Thursday, including one that forced evacuations as it reached cities on Portland’s outskirts.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is seeking federal disaster aid, is bracing residents for bad news as crews start to reenter burned communities to assess the damage.
„We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across the state,” Brown said during a Thursday news conference. „Thousands of people loaded their cars with precious belongings, pets and as much as they could possibly carry.”
Larry O’Neill, the state climatologist, said in an interview that the winds Oregon experienced are almost unheard of this time of year.
„There’s a sense of complacency because we don’t get the Santa Ana-type winds, so you don’t check fire weather or think about it so much when you move into one of these forested areas,” he said. „People still have this idea that western Oregon is a rainforest, so it wouldn’t happen like in California where they build in dangerous areas and should know better.”
The weirdness began on Monday when swings in the jet stream sent temperatures in Colorado plummeting more than 55 degrees overnight and produced a rare summer snowstorm.
Moving from higher-pressure areas to lower ones, warm air rushed north across a vast stretch of the West.
Hot dry air that had accumulated to the east of the Cascade mountains in Oregon crested the range and raced down western flanks and foothills into the Willamette Valley. Physics dictates that air warms about 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of descent.
„This is a key ingredient for explosive fire growth,” O’Neill said.
„Firefighters typically count on a slowing of fire growth at night when they have to suspend air operations,” he said. „But without the normal cooling as relative humidity goes up, the fires just absolutely explode.”
Studies show that the shift in the jet stream and the Santa Ana-type winds are consistent with climate change, he said.
„Climate change is not an abstract concept anymore,” he said. „This is what it looks like.”
Completing the equation of disaster, the winds drove flames into areas of western Oregon that had been experiencing severe drought — including Rainbow, a town so small it is not counted separately in the U.S. census.
John Bailey, a forestry expert at Oregon State University, has hiked in the woods around the town, admiring towering firs, songbirds and the rushing McKenzie River.
He said decades of fire suppression, as well as severe cutbacks in logging, had created a buildup of fuel — downed logs, grass, shrubs and duff — that he had predicted would someday power catastrophic fires.
Rethaford and his family moved there a year ago from the Oregon coast and rented a house from his father, Troy Rethaford.
The night they evacuated, his father ran out after them, asking why they were leaving so soon, but an hour and a half later, as massive flames appeared over the ridge, he fled as well.
The Holiday Farm fire tore down the McKenzie River valley and into the town of Blue River, home to about 800 people six miles west of Rainbow.
Firefighters had to cut their way through fallen trees as they drove east into the area — debris that could have trapped people who failed to get out early.
Sections of Blue River were razed. The full extent of destruction in Rainbow remains unknown, as does the cause of the fire, which was still fully uncontained Thursday evening.
Goodrick, 33, Rethaford, 31, and their son spent Monday night in their car, sleeping little.
They eventually found their way to a high school stadium in Springfield, Ore., where a stream of vehicles dropped off donated food and supplies. The Red Cross booked the family a room in a motel, where they spread out donated toys for Korbin.
The couple’s biggest regret was leaving behind their engagement and wedding rings, and Goodrick’s wedding dress, for a ceremony that had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rethaford, who is unemployed, worried about supporting his growing family, perhaps without a house.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rethaford traveled with his church group to Louisiana, where members helped to rebuild a man’s house.
“Now I’m seeing it from the other side,” he said.
SAN FRANCISCO — For the fourth straight year, fire season, as it is called in California, has millions of residents in the nation’s most populous state on edge, with flames having devoured more than 2.2 million acres so far this year, more than 2 percent of the entire state, the most ever.
And some forestry experts believe the next several months could be worse.
Exacerbated by climate change, the yearly onslaught of flames and smoke that has once again sullied air across the state and brought residents indoors has forced many Californians to consider the unthinkable: leaving the Golden State.
“Just watching it become a seasonal thing every single year that people have to deal with — and knowing people that lost their homes or had to evacuate — it’s just something we don’t want to deal with,” Jessica Martin, a marketing manager in Santa Rosa told Yahoo News.
After having narrowly escaped the 2018 Tubbs Fire and forced to remain on alert the last two years, Martin and her husband decided to move to Kitsap County, Wash., an island off Puget Sound.
“Our son was actually born just a couple of months before the Tubbs Fire, and that was absolutely terrifying,” Martin said. “We had an infant with us, we didn’t know what was happening. We were driving out and I remember being so grateful that our gas tank happened to be full because the lines were outrageous.”
On Wednesday, the Bay Area awoke to an eerie orange darkness as smoke from multiple blazes packed the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun’s light like a giant polarized sunglass lens. Throughout the day, ash drifted down like tainted snowflakes, coating the landscape. On Thursday, the dirty gray sky returned, along with air quality rated “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” on websites that residents now check daily and plan their days around.
Sparked by an unusual cluster of lightning storms in August followed by a scorching heatwave, blazes across Northern California have destroyed more than 1,200 homes, consumed cherished redwoods in state parks and forced mass evacuations.
Further south, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a fire believed to have been started by a pyrotechnic device used at a party exploded across 78,000 acres in a matter of hours, stranding vacationers, approximately 385 of whom had to be airlifted to safety.
“For me, the Sierra was always one of the greatest reasons for being in California,” Hugo Larman, a landscape architect in Albany, Calif., told Yahoo News. “Now it’s feeling like that’s coming to an end. My hope is that the fires will become less intense after the unnatural underbrush has burned through, but that’s a ways off. Plus the climate is changing.”
As new housing developments have gone up in more remote areas of the state, controlled burns that eliminate dead trees and clear out decades-long buildups of underbrush have not kept pace. That has left an excess of fuel for the fires that now cost the state tens of billions each year.
“We are, in a way, paying off this debt that we’ve accumulated for 120 years, which is essentially trying to keep fire out of ecosystems that are fully adapted to fire and in some cases are dependent on it,” said Brandon Collins, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach.
Summer wildfires have always been a danger in California, the result of high pressure cells that form over Nevada and channel strong Santa Ana winds toward the coast. But climate change has made that dynamic worse.
“Southern California has warmed about three degrees in the last century and all of the state is becoming warmer,” the Environmental Protection Agency warned in 2016. “Heat waves are becoming more common, snow is melting earlier in spring — and in Southern California, less rain is falling as well,” the agency said in a press release. “In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to further decrease the supply of water, increase the risk of wildfires, and threaten coastal development and ecosystems.”
“It’s just that there’s more opportunity for an ignition to coincide with bad fire weather, which allows it to escape our suppression,” Collins said.
Two years after the EPA’s assessment was released, the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise, destroying more than 13,000 homes as it consumed the surrounding dry forest at a rate of a football field per second.
“The flames were like a demon. They were just crazy,” Bert Clement, whose Paradise home burned down, told Yahoo News. “It was just a completely different kind of a flame. It was a flame of — it just scared you. Because it was so … it was so alive.”
Released the same year as the Camp Fire, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment estimated that by 2100, the average annual daily temperature would rise by between 5.6 degrees and 8.8 degrees depending on the measures taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For Lisa Palladino, the link between climate change and the increasing number of wildfires pushed her to leave the state in the aftermath of the 2017 Thomas Fire, at the time the largest wildfire in California history. Palladino was lucky that after burning more than 280,000 acres, the blaze was halted just before it reached her property in Ojai. But the stress of the experience, compounded by deadly mudslides in nearby Montecito three months after the fire was extinguished, left a mark.
“I’m a therapist, so I was like, ‘what are the tools that I have to get through this?’” Palladino said. “But you can’t use mindfulness when you’re talking about climate change. The summers were getting increasingly hot — 108 was normal when we first moved there, but then it started getting to be 112, it was 118 there this week — I just didn’t see an end in sight.”
Higher temperatures in the West mean less water and more fire. Across 11 Western states, including more than half or California, approximately 87 percent of the landscape is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Even more startling, much of the normally rain-soaked states of Oregon and Washington — where wildfires have erupted this week — are suffering severe drought.
More fire means more smoke.
“Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. “Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air.”
The short-term health effects of breathing wildfire smoke include chest pain, headaches, tiredness, sore throat, tiredness, asthma attacks and an elevated heart rate. The longer-term effects haven’t been studied yet. Meanwhile checking air quality websites feels like just one more dispiriting new normal in California. Despite this, Collins maintains that residents who remain in the state shouldn’t adopt a fatalistic attitude about wildfires.
“I do believe it is something we can manage, but it’s going to take a major change in mindset, both on the public side of things in terms of acceptance of management of the forest both with intentional burning and also acceptance in terms of doing mechanical treatment — that is, what many people would consider logging,” Collins said.
With an emphasis on mitigation, Collins said the state may need to halt new construction in certain areas, and convince residents that controlled burns are a necessary part of living in the state. Otherwise, California may never outrun the fires sure to come each and every year.
As if the state needed more bad news, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center announced the formation of a La Nina weather pattern, which occurs when the Pacific Ocean cools. It portends an especially long dry season, potentially further extending the duration of a wildfire season already made longer by climate change.
Given the challenges facing the state, Collins stressed that solving the problem means more than simply reacting to each new blaze with a team of firefighters.
“I’m hoping that at some point we’re going to flip that and say, look, we can’t just rely on the suppression to do the work,” Collins said. “We have to do the work ahead of time.”
California battles largest-ever fire as eight killed in western US
California firefighters battled the state’s largest ever inferno Thursday, as tens of thousands of people fled blazes up and down the US West Coast and officials warned the death toll could shoot up in coming days.
At least eight people have been confirmed dead in the past 24 hours across California, Oregon and Washington, but officials say some areas are still impossible to reach, meaning the number is likely to rise.
The August Complex Fire became the biggest recorded blaze in Californian history on Thursday, after multiple fires in the state’s northwest combined amid high temperatures and winds to rip through 470,000 acres of dry vegetation.
In neighboring Oregon, where at least five towns have been „substantially destroyed” and up to 40,000 people evacuated, governor Kate Brown said twice the state’s annual average had burned in just the past 72 hours.
„We have never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state,” she told a press conference.
„We know that there are fire related fatalities. And as soon as we are able to provide confirmed information, we will do so.”
Local Oregon officials have confirmed two deaths in the Santiam Canyon region, 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Portland, and another was recorded in the Ashland area, near the California border.
In the city of Molalla, police went door to door to make sure that residents were evacuating, marking their driveways with spray paint to show they had left.
„It’s one thing to leave your house, it’s another thing being told that you have to leave,” said Denise Pentz, a resident of Molalla for 11 years who was loading her family belongings in to a camping trailer.
„It’s just material, which truly, truly it is, but it’s awful. This is home … But the most important thing is my babies, my husband, my dog, my cat, and that all my neighbors have gotten out safely.”
All three West Coast states have been scrambling to contain rapidly spreading wildfires since the weekend due to unprecedented heatwaves followed by intense, dry winds.