My granddaughter has a new game. She sets out her family of stuffed animals, arranges them in a row, and tells them to get ready to evacuate. She warns them: “The sky is orange again!”. The muppets then proceed in an orderly fashion, as orderly as muppets can be in crisis, escaping the conflagration for the moment.
Everyone we know has a “GO” bag packed and a box of important documents by the front door. The folks who provide water for irrigation here have advised us that they won’t start making water available until June and that there won’t be much when it arrives. Our pasture in Southeastern Oregon is already dusty and cracked in April.
I signed onto the Rogueweather site to make sure I hadn’t been sleeping during a rainfall. Turns out, the site has had to develop new language to describe what’s happening this year. Modifying their already grim report that there has been “no measurable amount” of rain this month, they now report “no trace”. Since October of 2020, our part of the valley has had a total of eleven inches of rain, and no measurable amount of snow.
My son lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where he came to expect rain frequently during the winter. He moved to Corvallis because likes a thick grey overcast day, and recent estimates indicated that Carvallis would get something like 51 inches of rain a year. Last year the average was 36.34 inches, which by itself is troubling, but last week Corvallis was under a “Red Flag” warning, the warning of dangerously powerful and erratic winds which ordinarily might come in late July or August.
On September 8th, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, my wife and I stood in the pasture watching the sky fill with plumes of thick smoke. We knew there had been a “Red Flag Warning”, but the very heavy wind was oddly persistent. By midnight on September 8th, 11,000 people in our town and the adjacent town had lost their homes. Almost two thousand homes and business had become nightmarish ruins of ash and melted metal. The local bank burned to the ground; only its vault still stood in the middle of the devastation. Those who lost homes found that the fire had burned with such intensity that there was literally, “nothing left to sift through”.
We and every family in the valley learned the difference between evacuation warnings: Level 1 (“Be Ready”), Level 2 (“Get Set”) and Level 3 (“GO!”). We went back and forth as the sky grew darker, never received a warning, but heard explosions close to our home, packed the car, and drove to a friend’s home outside the fire ring. We love our agricultural valley with its lovely winding roads, but those roads were clogged, and there was no control of traffic as we fled.
That day was a terrible announcement of a change in fires affecting the Northwest. We had come to accept the fire season and the layers of thick smoke that fill the valley from July to September, but those earlier fires had been forest wildfires. This time fire came to town, not only raging through our southern corner of the state, but reaching the outskirts of Portland. Only a year earlier, businesses in our region lost much of their summer income as visitors chose not to drive into smoke, or, willing to brave the smoke, found that the passes into the valley and the highways to the south of us were closed as fires persisted.
Like the frog in slowly boiling water, we were not entirely aware that the summers when we first arrived had subsequently grown increasingly hot and dry. We complained through the three or four weeks of very hot weather, but knew relief would soon arrive. On the first week of summer in 2020, from June 22 — June 28, the highs ranged from 96 to 103. To the south, Sacramento saw the needle reach 100 on May 25th, 2020. 100 degree days have become common and expected.
I’m sitting on our deck in April, 2021. The grass is green, flowers are blooming, a mild breeze ruffles the leaves of the rose bushes just starting to bud. The thought of our beautiful corner of the world in flames is devastating, but our bags are packed, just in case.