On Sept. 7, Labor Day, the Pacific Northwest experienced a firestorm of historic proportions.
For two days, gusty winds drove dry air from the east, down the west slopes of the Cascade mountains. Wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour collided with record-breaking dry conditions, fanning flames of existing wildfires and creating optimal conditions for new fires to start.
By late September, more than a million acres in Oregon had burned, one of the worst years for wildfires in the state since record-keeping began. More than 800,000 acres burned in neighboring Washington State.
“There is no fire behavior prediction system that we have that even comes close to what we experienced on the ground,” said John Giller, regional interagency director for Fire and Aviation in Washington and Oregon for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Giller said he hadn’t had time to reflect much on what the region had just experienced — his team was still too busy fighting the fires. The region managed as many as 20 large fires between two states in the immediate windstorm aftermath — including the massive Riverside Fire in Clackamas County, which burned 138,000 acres.
“It’s been a very sobering fire season,” Giller said.
Thousands of Clackamas Countians were forced to flee their houses — at least 50 families returned to their homes weeks later to find they were no longer there.
Even those removed from imminent fire danger saw and experienced things they will never forget: the skies over Canby turning orange, then red, then black; air that tasted of campfire smoke and was so thick and acrid that it hurt to breathe.
Mark Turney, public affairs officer for the Umpqua National Forest, was working as a PIO at the Beachie Creek fire when the incident command post became a fire line.
Firefighters in sneakers and flipflops joined those in boots and yellow shirts, beating back the flames. They nearly succeeded, before the wind again whipped up the flames, forcing them to evacuate.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen,” the Army veteran said. “It was terrifying. But the professionalism of those guys… I’d go anywhere with them, again.”
Then there’s Joanie Schmidgall, a NEPA planner on the Willamette National Forest who spent the day in a lookout tower outside Detroit, Ore., relaying radio traffic between fire crews, while officials evacuated the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness ahead of the storm.
Spending a night buffeted by near-hurricane force winds, it was the smoke that finally drove her away. She decided to move to a nearby ranger station instead, alongside fifty others taking shelter from the wind.
“It felt like the safest place in the world,” she said. But when she woke up, there was fire outside.
On their escape through Santiam Canyon, trees glowed red from roots to crown on either side of the highway, while fire appeared to ripple across the forest floor like lava. Fallen trees and limbs were everywhere.
Firefighters camped on the other side of the canyon, in Gates had raced into the burning pass from the other side to clear the way, she later learned.
Nearby, Forest Service firefighters led 70 residents from Detroit Lake to safety, threading the needle over forest roads through Mt. Hood National Forest when Highway 22 was blocked by converging fires on both sides.
Despite being asked repeatedly, their incident commander, Noel Livingston, refuses to give their names.
“They don’t want to be stood up as heroes,” he said. “They were just firefighters, doing their jobs.”
Wildland firefighter and Forest Service culture strongly discourage taking any unnecessary risks. That’s important because these jobs are inherently dangerous, and hazards are everywhere.
This wildfire season has taken a heavy toll. Two pilots have died fighting fires in Oregon, and several firefighters have been injured.
“There are many heroes. So many stories that haven’t been told yet, by people who may never be interviewed,” Giller said. “This has been a sobering fire year.”
It’s also been a longer season than usual. Interagency staff worked long hours starting in March to design protective measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19 among firefighters, who traditionally work and live in close quarters throughout the fire season.
Throughout the summer, firefighters and support staff deployed in force as part of an aggressive initial attack strategy aiming to keep resources and staffing from being maxed out. Eventually, though, warm weather, lack of rainfall and low relative humidity began to take their toll.
By September, the strain was starting to show, Giller said. Some seasonal firefighters declined offers to extend their tours of duty, and exhaustion had set in among firefighters and support staff.
But when the wind came, and fire followed, a community came together to face the crisis.
It’s hard to overstate the impact the fires have had, particularly on rural forest communities, like Estacada, Detroit, Lyons and Idanha. Damage is still being assessed, but the numbers already paint a grim picture.
And yet, hope remains.
“It’s really incredible, how our community just came together,” said Kathy Westenskow Davis, deputy forest supervisor on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
She said she was awed by how her employees immediately opened their homes to others, while local and national organizations had mobilized to meet evacuee needs.
Davis herself did not offer her home — though it was not out of selfishness. Her and three other forest employees’ homes were among the 2,350 residential structures state officials estimate burned in the Alameda fire.
“I’m taking it day by day,” Davis said. “I’m living in a motel with my husband, and two dogs; one of them is a two-and-a-half-month-old puppy. But we’re together.”
Whether their uniforms are Forest Service green or firefighter yellow, colleagues all around me have risked their lives opened homes and opened hearts to those in need.
“I’m honored and humbled to be able to lead such a dedicated and selfless workforce,” Giller said. “They did amazing things in the face of danger, and undoubtedly saved lives, saved homes. I’m just really proud to be associated with them.”
Catherine Caruso is a public affairs specialist for the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region.