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  • Ellen Bassett

Oregon Burning

Phoenix, Oregon, Photo: Kevin Jantzer, AP


The past week or so has been filled with apocalyptic images of wildfires tearing through Oregon and California (and to a lesser extent Washington state). Last year when there were the catastrophic wildfires in Australia, it seemed tragic (particularly imagery of burnt koalas)—but it is interesting to me how much more upsetting the fires in Oregon are for me. (I guess place attachment is a real thing!) I’m obsessively following them, reaching out to friends in proximity to the fires and, of course, tracing the air quality which is just abysmal.



It looks according to the wildfire maps that a favorite location of ours on the Umpqua River may be no more. It is the Inn at Steamboat Springs—a lodge near some of the best fly-fishing in Oregon. Now I don’t fly fish but I have loved sitting on the river just watching the gorgeous colors from the interplay of sky, water, and trees.


But I have to say the fires have taken me a bit by surprise. Several years ago, my colleague at Portland State University, Ethan Seltzer, had a class that was premised upon Oregon, but particularly Portland, being a place that would be asked to absorb substantial numbers of climate refugees. I always assumed that the moderate climate and fairly high level of rainfall would fare well in the future climate. Ahem. It has been very hot in the last few summers (although not this summer), but winters are really the issue—they have been drier and warmer in recent years with increased melt out of the snowpack in the mountains. Add to that issues with forestry, including invasive species, and you have a recipe for combustion.

Increasingly worrying reports are emerging about what will happen in the US in relation to climate change and migration. The New York Times has spectacular coverage of it by reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. See it here:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/15/magazine/climate-crisis-migration-america.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage

Finally, one very worrying trend is how something like a wildfire can also be politicized and become incendiary in another way. There was a rumor trending in rural Oregon—far more conservative locations than the state’s urban areas—that some fires had been set by Antifa or other radicals. Once again the idea that climate change is real—and dangerous—gets fed into a deceiving narrative that exacerbates political divisions. Rebecca Schuman, writing from Eugene, has a great essay on the two Oregons—both of which are on fire. Read that here: https://slate.com/business/2020/09/two-oregons-both-on-fire.html

Last Updated:  7 October 2020