An 82,000-Person Oregon Town Has Been Evacuated as the U.S. Wildfire Crisis Worsens

The RSG Lumber Yard Fire is one of dozens burning across Oregon. (Gif: Clackamas County Sheriff)
The RSG Lumber Yard Fire is one of dozens burning across Oregon. (Gif: Clackamas County Sheriff)

The horrific U.S. wildfire season is getting even worse. More than 85 wildfires are blazing across the West, but one of the most pressing is in southern Oregon where nearly the entire the 82,000-person town of Medford was evacuated.

Late Tuesday, the state’s governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency. Brown called for evacuations to escape the encroaching Almeda Fire, which as of Tuesday evening was uncontained and spreading up Interstate 5. In addition to Medford, residents in the surrounding towns were put on alert to evacuate at a moment’s notice or leave immediately. Footage shared on Facebook showed the fire raging through the town of Talent on Tuesday afternoon, located about 14 km south of Medford. The Almeda Fire has now burned across 1,000 to 1,200 hectares according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

While the Almeda Fire is among the most dangerous, other large fires have spread over the state as part of historic extreme fire conditions. The largest fires in the state are the Beachie Creek fire, which has spread over 53,600 hectares and is 0% contained, and the Lionshead Fire, which is blazing across 37,100 hectres and is only 5% contained.

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On Tuesday, Oregon fire officials told FOX12, Portland’s local Fox affiliate, that there have been many successful rescue missions, but could not say if anyone has died from the fires or how many people been hurt. Gov. Brown also told reporters on Tuesday that in some parts of the state, “the situation is so difficult and dangerous that even firefighters are being evacuated.”

The local Idanha-Detroit, Oregon volunteer fire department said conditions were too dangerous for its firefighters to carry out their mission in the area. Since Highway 22 was blocked on both ends by boulders and fallen trees, the agency called in the National Guard for an air evacuation, but were told a landing was not possible as high winds and heavy smoke.

“We were preparing to move people to the docks for a ‘last stand,’ but the Forest Service was able to find an evacuation route up to Government Camp using forest roads,” the agency said on Facebook. “We do not have any information on threatened or burned structures at this time. We apologise for not being able to have more accurate information. Our main focus was protecting the lives of our community members, campers, and firefighters.”

Smoke from the wildfires are also causing air quality to deteriorate. On Tuesday, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality issued an air quality advisory for the Portland metro area, Willamette Valley, Columbia River Gorge, which they extended into Wednesday. Eerie pictures like the one below posted to social media showed the Capitol in Salem under blood red skies in the middle of the day as thick smoke socked in the area, filtering sunlight.

Fires are also blazing in Washington, where they destroyed 80% of buildings in the town of Malden, and in California, where they’ve charred a record 2.2 million acres this year and show no signs of stopping. Bone dry conditions and a record-setting heat wave set the stage from extreme fire conditions. A bizarre weather setup to start the week has seen winds streaming downslope out of the Cascade Mountains, causing fires to blow up in the Pacific Northwest. The same is true in California, though the windy setup there is more common.

While summer wildfires are commonplace in the western U.S., the sheer terror unfolding right now is linked to the ever-worsening climate crisis. Oregon has gotten hotter and drier in recent years, creating tinderbox-like conditions for fires to catch. In a horrible feedback loop, wildfires also emit carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate crisis. The only way to avoid even worse wildfires in future years is to curb our greenhouse gas pollution.