What You Need To Know About The West Coast Wildfires

12:05 minutes

a lone person walks, with smoke and haze shrouded city behind them
A smoke-filled sky in Portland, OR on September 12, 2020. Credit: Shutterstock

Peak wildfire season is just beginning on the West Coast, but 2020 is already another unprecedented year. In California, more than 3.4 million acres have burned so far this year, beating an all-time record of 1.6 million set just two years ago. And in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland’s air quality hit the worst in the world on Monday, raging fires have produced never-before-seen poor air quality that threatens the health of millions. More than 500,000 people in California, Washington and Oregon have been under evacuation orders, and at least 35 people have died.

Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Erin Ross talk about the toll of the fires in their regions, the role of climate change and other factors, and what the rest of the fire season may bring. 

What You Said: How Are The Fires Affecting You?

Kraemer W. from San Rafael, CA
I feel like I am living through the opening scenes of the movie Interstellar. It’s pretty creepy and scary to think that this could be our new normal. That’s how the fires are affecting me, along with not being able to go outside and having to have further restrictions to just the COVID restrictions.

Chris from the Bay Area, CA
Yes, it’s meant that, since I have asthma, and I felt the smoke last year in San Jose, and had to go to the doctor a number of times, that basically makes you prisoner in your own house, that you need to run the AC just to keep the smoke out.

Derek from Clackamas, OR
Hi, my name is Derrick. I’m from Clackamas, Oregon, where my wife and I run a small farm where we have chickens and goats and turkeys and grow vegetables and all kinds of fun stuff. We had to evacuate last week because of the fire in Estacada that was coming towards us. And the most complicated moment was when we realized I had so many goats that they couldn’t fit in my car at the same time to get them out. So, I actually found a friend in Portland, who has a large backyard. And so we drove out there, set up electric fencing, and then had to run the goats over there a truckload at a time. It took two trips in the back of my pickup truck, so that we got all 12 goats out into my friend Courtney’s backyard. And while they were there, that allowed my wife and I to pack, you know our stuff from the house, get it into our cars and friends cars to just get out. The other notable thing was, I had two friends come over and raid my greenhouse and take cuttings off the plants that were too big to move. So that if the worst happened, I would have cuttings from those plants to propagate. It was really, really scary. And I wasn’t sure if I’d see anything here again. But the good news is it’s a week later now less than a week, but—what day is it? Yeah, it’s about a week later, and we’re back at home. The fires have been reduced. They’re not done. The sky is full of smoke and ash. But they’ve reduced enough that we were allowed to come home. And so today, we’ve got the dogs back. The goats are not at my friends’s Courtney’s house anymore. We moved them to a farm with a little more space up in Washington, and I’m going to be able to bring them home tomorrow or the next day. So yeah, that’s that’s the short version.

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Segment Guests

Kerry Klein

Kerry Klein is a reporter at Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California.

Erin Ross

Erin Ross is a science reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She’s based in Portland, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, Senator Ed Markey, sponsor of the Green New Deal, explains why his primary victory shows that climate change is a winning issue with voters in this electoral season.

But first it’s time to check in on the state of science.

(AUDIO RECORDING) This is KERA– for WWNO– St. Louis Public Radio– KKNO News– Iowa Public Radio News.

Local science stories of national significance. And there are, perhaps, few things more nationally significant than the dozens of uncontained wildfires currently burning on the West Coast. Peak fire season is only just beginning. And California has already set a new record, more 3 million acres burned, more than half a million people have been under evacuation orders this week.

And in Oregon and Washington, where even wetter, more temperate regions are burning, the air quality from smoke has been setting records for both worst in the world this week and worst ever-recorded for those regions.

And here to report on why this season has been so bad so far, and the toll these fires are taking on the millions of people who live near them, are my guests, Kerry Klein, reporter for Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California and Erin Ross, science reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting, based in Portland. Welcome back both of you.

KERRY KLEIN: Thank you.

ERIN ROSS: Hi, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Kerry, I just set the scene with numbers, records, you name it, but as you’ve been covering the creek fire in the San Joaquin Valley, what’s it been like for people actually living there?

KERRY KLEIN: Right, so there’s been a lot of uncertainty because for just so long they really didn’t know the status of their homes. Many of the folks that I spoke with– they had kind of very similar stories. The fire moved so, so quickly, this particular fire, that they had very, very little warning.

Evacuation warnings turned to orders almost immediately. And so many of them had the same reports, where they were loading up their cars or their trucks and they could hear or even see the fire raging near them.

And so here’s one person I spoke to. His name is Matthew Warner. And he lives in a community known as Tollhouse.

MATTHEW WARNER (INTERVIEW RECORDING): : We could actually see the horrible glow over the far ridge, and we could hear it.

It was like (GASPING) huuuu. And we could hear pops, things that sounded like explosions.

IRA FLATOW: Erin, as we’re hearing, the fires are actually worse in Oregon right now. Help us understand how bad it’s been.

ERIN ROSS: Unprecedented is such a cliche word. But that’s exactly how it’s been. We had, in the span of about six hours last week, a number of fires either get stoked or be started by high winds. And then they ripped down these mountain canyons and burned pretty much everything in their path. And they expanded to cover as much as 30 miles in the course of those six hours.

That’s not the type of fire we ever get here. And they were burning in areas that know that they might experience fires. But not like the dry East Side, where they’re really prepared for it and fires are kind of a part of life. It just really struck everyone by surprise. And there was so much fuel on the ground that the fires burned really hot and really, really fast.

IRA FLATOW: You know, that’s kind of what we folks outside of Oregon are thinking. We know Oregon is not usually in the same category as California, most years. But now it seems to be.

ERIN ROSS: Yeah, we’ve been having these hotter, drier summers now for a while. And that, of course, extends the fire season and creates really favorable conditions for things to burn. But what really happened this time was this unprecedented wind event.

If the winds hadn’t come– and the National Weather Service described it as like a once or twice a century event that they don’t think is linked to climate change– then these fires wouldn’t have spread so fast. And many of them wouldn’t have started at all. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many downed power lines you have. If the fuel isn’t dry, it’s not going to burn. And so, at the same time, this wouldn’t have been possible without climate change.

What we can say, unequivocally, is what we know about the impact of climate change on our fire season. That it makes it longer, it makes it hotter, it makes it drier. We know that we were experiencing a record-warm September with temperatures reaching into the hundreds, which is very unusual for this time of year.

We know that humidity was incredibly low. And so climate change sort of built the fire. And then you can think of this wind event as the spark that let it spread so fast and let so many spread at once.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Kerry, California’s already broken its own record for how many acres have been burned– 3 million and counting. Can you give us an idea of what’s contributing to this number in California?

KERRY KLEIN: Yeah, the number is up to 3.4 million acres now, at this point. And– well, so a lot of what Erin said absolutely holds true here. Climate change is definitely a factor. There’s a lot of debate around forest management and clearing of trees and brush and things like that.

But one really big factor was we just we just came out of a really historic drought in California a couple of years ago. And one of the really significant impacts of that drought was massive tree die-off. It’s estimated that nearly 150 million trees died off in the Sierra. And the main cause of that is not just the drought evaporating the water that these trees needed down and their root systems and things like that, but it also allowed bark beetles to come in and infest these trees.

And so, if the trees were hydrated, they could fend these beetles off. But, without the water, they could not. And so there’s just a massive amount of fuel and tinder out there to support these fires.

IRA FLATOW: We folks, out here in the east, we see pictures of the fires all the time and fire season, the choking smoke that you folks are going through. And last week the sun was practically blotted out all along your coast. We have all these eerie pictures of orange haze. I mean, what has the Valley been like, Kerry?

KERRY KLEIN: Yeah, those orange photos are hard to miss. I mean, they are really, really striking and really illustrate the impacts here. And the valley, surprisingly actually, it hasn’t been as orange. But it is still– the AQI, this air quality index, one of these measures of air pollution– has still been tremendously high here, as in across the entire West Coast.

And that’s really concerning for a lot of reasons. In the short term, we know that there are a lot of respiratory impacts. The smoke can impact– or it can exacerbate– asthma or COPD, other things like that.

But then, when it comes to the long-term– I was asking Kenny Bahn about this. He is an assistant dean at the UCSF Fresno School of Medicine. He’s also an emergency-room physician. And he confirms that, yes, whenever it’s wildfire season he sees a lot more patients coming in with these respiratory eye irritations because of the smoke.

But then I asked him about the long term impacts and here’s his response.

KENNY BAHN (INTERVIEW RECORDING): The literature on that’s kind of interesting because it’s really hard to look at population bases based on wildfire exposures. They do have lung-damage, based on firefighters, which does show that there’s correlation with the long-term damage. So, basically, being a long-term wildfire-fighter is a risk factor for developing long-term lung disease.

ERIN ROSS: And, of course, while the long-term impacts of wildfire smoke may not have been all that studied, there is one particular component known as PM 2.5– PM stands for particulate matter, very fine, little particles in the air. And there is a lot of research showing that can be very harmful if people are exposed to it over the long-term.

IRA FLATOW: Amazing. And, Erin, when has Portland before ever had the dubious honor of the worst air quality in the world? That’s what they got this week, right?

ERIN ROSS: It is, it is. And actually they did have the worst air quality in the world in 2017, which was our previous record-setting fire season. It didn’t come anywhere near this, in terms of destruction or acres burned or speed.

But we are shattering that record massively all across the state. I mean, there are places in Oregon that have been experiencing AQIs in the 700s, highs in the 600s, well over 500, which is considered to be above the index. And there’s not a lot of research on what happens when that smoke gets really, really bad. But we know that there’s an amount of pollutant that you’re supposed to experience in a year.

And this makes it easy to get above that EPA threshold. A lot of people with pre-existing conditions are very concerned and at-risk.

I spoke with Rachel Kerns, who is a preschool teacher in Eugene, Oregon. And she hasn’t been outside of her house at all in about a week and a half.

RACHEL KERNS (INTERVIEW RECORDING): I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old. And one of them has had lung issues in the past. So that’s been– I think our biggest worry is just the air quality has been so poor. We’ve kind of tried to, like, tape things up.

ERIN ROSS: And, as you can imagine, a three-year-old kept inside of a house during a pandemic, when you can’t go to the museum or the library or places you usually go to escape smoke, it’s pretty difficult for her to understand why she can’t go outside.

IRA FLATOW: Kerry, as I mentioned, this fire-season is already a record one. Any idea how much longer it could go this year?

KERRY KLEIN: Fire season, historically, has ended around November, kind of late fall. But, as Erin said, these fire seasons are lasting longer than they ever have. I think that we just, unfortunately, don’t really know. A lot of the historic wildfires have been even later than November, even in just the last couple of years. So I think firefighters are preparing for a long fight.

IRA FLATOW: And, Erin, there’s been some rain where you are. Is that not a good thing?

ERIN ROSS: We can hope that it’s a good thing. We really, really need rain. But I think we were all hoping that the rain wouldn’t come like this. There’s actually, pretty much as we speak, a string of very violent thunderstorms moving up and down that mountain-range that these fires started in.

And there are some areas where spotters have been reporting seeing as much as an inch of rain come down in just 20 or 30 minutes. And something that we’ve learned very much from California wildfires, but we’ve never experienced in Oregon because we just don’t get fires on this side of the mountains, is that, after a fire comes, you can get something called a post-fire debris flow, which is basically a really fast, watery, violent landslide that happens because of chemical changes to the soil during fires and because all the vegetation is gone.

And so the Weather Service issued flash-flood warnings for the burned areas. And one of the fires actually removed all non-essential personnel from the fire area. Anyone who was returned to their home was told to leave. They aren’t even allowing in utility crews or road-workers.

IRA FLATOW: One of our listeners called in with a sentiment that I think echoes what a lot of people are feeling.

KRAMER: It’s pretty creepy and scary to think that this could be our new normal.

IRA FLATOW: That was Kramer from San Rafael on the Science Friday VoxPop app. Erin, do we need to start to think of the West, parts that haven’t necessarily burned in the past, as a fire danger zone now every year?

ERIN ROSS: I think, yes, we absolutely should. I mean, the– again like that unique set of conditions that caused this– that made all these fires light all at once and move so fast might not happen again.

But this proves to us that this side of the West is perfectly capable of burning. And it has indeed burned in the past, just usually every 100 years, 1,000 years, et cetera, depending on where you are. Clearly, it is just as capable of going up as the other sides. It’s just not quite as prone to.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us. And stay safe out there.

KERRY KLEIN: Thank you.

ERIN ROSS: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Kerri Klein, reporter for Valley Public Radio in Fresno, California.

Erin Ross, science and environment reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting based in Portland.

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