For more than a week, my home state of Oregon has been consumed by the wildfires that have eaten up large swaths of the American West. Entire towns have been reduced to embers in a matter of hours, leaving at least 33 dead with many dozens more missing. Upward of 40,000 Oregonians have fled their homes: residents in counties on the outskirts of Portland have faced a series of mandatory evacuation orders, and many others have left voluntarily due to the hazardously toxic smoke-filled air, which is currently the worst in the world. Fires around the state continue to rage unabated, overwhelming firefighters and leading to Gov. Kate Brown’s invocation of emergency powers. Local officials predict a “mass fatality incident”—the worst loss of life from fire, in Brown’s own words, in the state’s history.
Initially, my family and I felt insulated from all of this: Our 8,000-odd person town of Hood River, sitting in the mountainous Oregon farmland an hour or so east of Portland, has been somewhat removed from the chaos of 2020—rural America is used to thinking of itself as existing in an entirely different world from our cities. So the wildfires began as an abstraction for us, as most natural disasters are for most people. The apocalyptic images of ruby-red skies over California struck us as tragic, but distant.
But in the early hours of Friday morning, I woke up with the taste of fire in my mouth and found it difficult to breathe; my parents had been awake for the same reason since 1:30 a.m. The circulation in our house, a cheap one-story manufactured home, did little to protect against the heavy, hot smoke that had crept up through the Columbia River Gorge and settled on our town. By that evening, we had joined our 40,000 fellow Oregonian émigrés, the three of us and our dog—my little brother was fortuitously absent, having left for his freshman year of college a week before; I’m taking my senior fall semester online—packing up the Subaru Outback and setting out for Idaho.
It’s unclear when exactly we’ll be able to go home, but we count ourselves lucky; it’s highly unlikely that our house will burn, in contrast to towns to the south which have disappeared altogether. We’re safe, as are our friends and family still in Oregon; we work jobs that are easily done via laptops and Zoom calls; and we’re financially well-off enough to leave town and stay in a hotel for a week. (Although far too cheap to shell out for more than one room, meaning that all of us have been relegated to the same confined space for days now—a serious test of our collective familial bond.)