"Justin! Wake up! I just got a text message asking us to evacuate."
My morning started at about 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8, with my wife calling me out of bed. Walking into our living room, I saw red and blue lights flashing outside our house. Multiple fire trucks were stopped in front of the house, pausing for a moment to organize and gear up. As some of the trucks drove vanished down the hill below, we followed their path to an orange glow in the sky.
I didn’t grab my glasses before I ran out of the house, but I didn’t really need them. Our tall Doug firs and all the small trees and shrubs on our property were moving in a way I’ve never seen. The wind was battering. Branches were thrown from the trees. We had to move to avoid being hit by the debris. We couldn’t see flames, but the orange glow covered enough of the skyline that we knew that there was a pretty serious fire somewhere to the northwest of us.
In hindsight, if I had grabbed my glasses, we might have left that night. The fire was much closer than we realized.
We didn’t sleep much at all that night as we continued to monitor the orange glow and emergency vehicles. The next day we learned that, only a quarter mile down our road, multiple neighbors had fought the fires bucket-brigade style. A few neighbors whose properties burned did evacuate that night.
The next day was surreal. The fire department patrolled the fire, though they no longer drove with their lights flashing. I decided to go for a quick drive to see what happened the night before. Our internet was down, and cell service is spotty at best on a normal day.
We gave each of our three boys a bin and helped them to fill it with what was important to them. It was heartbreaking.
I didn’t have to drive far to find out what happened overnight. A group of trees (an invasive species called black locusts that I constantly battle in my work as a land manager, no less) had been uprooted by the winds and knocked power lines into a dry field, igniting a grass fire that spread into the forest. In that moment, this was all I knew of Oregon’s fires: a 10-acre close call down the road.
After returning home, I called into a virtual work meeting. My coworkers told me about the number of fires in Clackamas and Marion counties and the magnitude of them. The next day I was able to get online and view the Clackamas County evacuation map. Our little neighborhood was technically colored red, a level 3 (Go now!) evacuation zone. Our little red polygon was a blip in comparison to what I saw farther east and south of us though. I was thankful that our neighbors and Clackamas Fire were able to stop our small neighborhood fire the first night and next morning. But that camaraderie and bravery would be little against the wall of red heading west.
For the next several days, I can’t tell you how many times I refreshed that evacuation map, watching the red areas move farther and farther west. The most alarmed I was during the whole week came when Estacada, Sandy, Canby, Molalla and Oregon City all moved up to level 2 just as other areas moved to level 3. I will never forget the exodus that I witnessed that day. For more than four hours, traffic backed up six miles from I-205 all the way past our house. I questioned if we should be leaving with everyone else, including my folks, who live down the road.
We weren’t sitting idle. Our evacuation preparation went from packing medicines, changes of clothes and our hard drives (which we grabbed the first night), to looking through storage and grabbing bins of old photos and sentimental things that couldn’t be replaced. We gave each of our three boys a bin and helped them to fill it with what was important to them. It was heartbreaking.
Before the fires, I would look at the Douglas firs on my property and think they were far from my house. Now, they feel very close, looming.
It’s a blur now, but two or three days later, the weather improved, things stabilized a bit and there seemed to be more good news than bad. The fires became less and less of a concern for us, although the smoke constantly reminded everyone of what just happened down the road and was still happening east of us.
I won’t quickly forget this unprecedented fire that took so much from many. I feel very thankful for the multiple agencies that fought these fires along with my neighbors down the road! While I was mainly focused on my personal situation, I was and I continue to talk to neighbors of Metro natural areas who would like to talk about healthy forests and their concerns about wildfire.
During a normal year, the idea of a “defensible space” is something I routinely discuss with Metro’s neighbors who live where forests and homes meet. Before the fires, I would look at the Douglas firs on my property and think they were far from my house. Now, they feel very close, looming.
We talked about climate change a little more than we have previously when meeting neighbors at their homes that border Metro’s natural areas. The conversation often shifts to California’s fires where climate change is turning long, intense fire seasons into the norm, and how it is changing things here in Oregon. Most of all we talk about how it seems like as much as was lost and as overrun as much of the state was, many of us, but not all, dodged a bullet in our part of Oregon, and that next time we might not be as lucky.
The fires showed the close link between my work and my home. During work hours, I fret over how to foster healthy forests by removing invasive species and thinning overgrown trees in Metro’s natural areas. Now I’m looking at the Douglas firs near my house, knowing even more how they are connected to the forests in the distance.