360Cities Maestro contributor, William I, had direct experience of the recent destructive wildfires in southern Oregon. Volunteering to help during the fires and in the immediate aftermath put him in position to create some striking images of the disaster.
Text and Panoramas by William I.
The West Coast of the United States has always had a reputation for fires. A combination of low humidity, dry hot summers, & encroaching human infrastructure has added to ever increasing costly fire seasons. Seen here is a common scene of former woods in Oregon from a recent fire.
Yet this past year, an added drought only made it certain 2020 would be a bad season. California itself has led the stage of entire towns decimated by fast wind-driven fires & while this year fires have ravaged all over the West, Southern Oregon was especially hard hit with in-town fires that destroyed thousands of structures.
The summer of 2020 had been relatively calm for the region, sparing a few days of haze from fires in California & initially Siberia of all places. Yet the morning of September 8, 2020, the Almeda Fire (also called the Glendower Fire) erupted along Almeda Drive in Ashland, Oregon, aided by dry humid winds coming from the east & down the mountains.
The winds were spurned from an unusual weather pattern that resulted in a blast of cold Arctic air coming down from Canada & sending a winter storm (despite being early September) into the American Rocky Mountain region. Here in Oregon, we were hitting 100*F (37ºC) temps, yet where I used to live in Colorado, it was snowing! The storm in the Rocky Mountain region had pushed westerly winds nearly 1,000mi (1,600km) to our region. Our local news did not have these winds forecasted.
Initial reports said the Almeda Fire was heading up the nearby mountainside but after some time, we heard it had actually gone down the valley & was ripping through the town of Talent. Also reported was another fire 15mi (24km) away at the north end of our valley, which was being called the South Obenchain Fire, another one that had exploded in size the moment it began.
The Almeda Fire went through Talent & the next town to the northwest, Phoenix. Towards nightfall it had already traveled close to 8mi (13km) from its source & was encroaching Medford, the largest city in our valley with 80,000 residents. The last major line of defense was alongside South Stage Road just before Medford where the entire road was lined with fire trucks flooding water into the fields adjacent to it where flames were coming. If the fire & embers broke through that line, there was nothing to stop the flames from ripping through Medford. But as night fell, the winds subsided & the fire had been kept at bay & while uncertain at the time, it was later confirmed to be detained from going any further.
On a personal note, I had been assigned to personally deal with road closures. The paranoia led to many individuals breaking through our barricades & since we weren’t law enforcement, we couldn’t stop them, but noted their license plates for citations. We did ID every vehicle to ensure they lived on that particular closed road, weeding out possible looters. The people we let through, you could see in their eyes – it was either absolute happiness or tears. Evacuees who lost homes were allowed to stay at the Expo, our largest event center facility in the valley. While the Covid epidemic remains at large, the emergency evacuation of thousands of people into one facility took coronavirus out of the picture. Also stationed by the Expo were many outsider firefighter response teams camped in tents.
There were other fires that mysteriously erupted in the valley the entire week & I was personally evacuated twice on different days with one particular blaze coming within 300ft (less than 100m) of my home. And to add to the fears, there were also pyros who were intentionally starting new fires. One suspect made headlines after being arrested, though he had nothing to do with the origin of the Almeda Fire. My coworkers caught another person trying to light fires in Phoenix. During cleanup by the South Obenchain Fire, we also found a Molotov cocktail in the bushes that fortunately had self-extinguished.
From normal day to day life, it had turned into a strange dystopian world. Most of my work for the next two weeks entailed road closures, more so on the South Obenchain Fire than the Almeda. Day in and day out, I let in each new shift of fire crews make their way to the scenes, the look of tired and exhaustion. The water trucks & the excavators, all digging new containment lines. But the winds have stopped & progress for local fires has made great stride. On a few occasions I was also called to assist in draining swimming pools in burned neighborhoods as part of a recovery search. The general public was not allowed access during these shots.
We never recovered any bodies fortunately, yet two coworkers were summoned to another address of a missing person & had to drain a flooded basement where they could see something deceased, identified later as a drowned dog.
The South Obenchain Fire as I’ve so far heard was caused from a tree snag hitting a powerline & sparking flames. The Almeda Fire itself remains a criminal investigation as it was sourced from a vehicle fire with human remains found nearby, alluring to a potential homicide. Vehicle fires are not uncommon for the region, sparked by lawless activity. A number of panoramas I’ve taken of incinerated vehicles attest to this. The South Obenchain Fire destroyed 150+ structures, the Almeda 2800+. Particularly hit by the Almeda Fire were mobile home units, many of them built in the 1970s out of less fire-resistant material. Many of the more affordable housing units in our valley were eliminated & senior citizens were among the hardest hit, left with nothing. Harley Davidson, which had many vintage motorcycles, was lost in the fire. Four people I know lost homes, including one coworker. Most of the fire followed alongside the Bear Creek Greenway, which has a bike trail running primarily through overgrown cottonwood trees & blackberry bushes. Despite a possible mass fatality event, only four deaths occurred yet 40,000 remain displaced. Over two dozen looters arrested the first week, two of whom I knew from high school. Cleanup costs for the Almeda Fire are estimated at $170 million (€145 million) due to hazardous waste (the air even today is a continuous smell like stale tobacco).
As I write this, the South Obenchain Fire is 96% contained w/ lingering hot spots. The Almeda Fire was 100% contained on September 15. The Almeda Fire burned a mere 3000 acres (1215 hectares), the South Obenchain ten times that. A forest fire southwest of Ashland, the Slater Fire, is ongoing at 155000 acres (63000 hectares). And further south in Northern California, the August Complex has charred close to 1 million acres (405,000 hectares), the biggest in California history. The Glass Fire in the San Francisco Bay area is now hitting hard a populated region already decimated severely in 2017. Northern Oregon is also hit by large-scale fires, some towns & neighborhoods left to ashes. A lot of green forested mountain scenery I’ve hiked is now changed.
Such is life in Western America and nothing lasts forever. If it’s not fires, it’s flooding or a potential earthquake. I still have my small collection of valuables I hope to evacuate with should I inevitably lose my home, which ultimately isn’t a matter of if, but when. For now the pride is strong here & plans are underway to rebuild what was lost in Phoenix, Talent, & the rural areas of the South Obenchain Fire. Below are all scenes from the Almeda Fire. “No one saw this day coming, for fire is never a gentle master.
Comparative before& after shots of Phoenix, Oregon: