Dodging Fires

Dodging Fires, Surrounded by Smoke
September, 2020

Living almost our entire lives in Oklahoma, both of us can be a little too nonchalant at times with regards to tornadoes. When the sky turns a creepy shade of green and all goes still, you might find us on our front porch.

For the past few weeks, we have been hanging out in Oregon and Washington. Tornadoes should be the last thing on our minds. Or so we thought. The fire tornadoes that tore through California last month were jaw-dropping scary. Powerful fires created their own destructive weather systems. 

Luckily, we haven’t run into any “firenadoes”. But the very intense fires that started in California have spread rapidly and multiplied greatly in numbers from our southern border to our northern one. As of September 10th, there were 102 large fires burning across 12 western states, with scores of smaller fires also in existence. Of these large fires, only 4 are considered contained according to the National Interagency Fire Center. California, Oregon and Washington are getting hit particularly hard. It’s estimated that 10% of Oregon’s population has had to evacuate their homes due to fires. The fires have devastated vast areas and numerous towns have burned down. In recent years, the fire ferocity has seemed to be on a sharp upward trajectory. Even with this bad trend, the climate and fire experts keep using the same word to describe what is happening this year – unprecedented.

So far, we have successfully avoided getting too close to a fire. Our biggest challenge has been dealing with the all-encompassing smoke. We are hoping our record holds as we prepare to head east from our campsite near the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Oregon in order to escape both the smoke and fire. But we are quickly learning the risks even when we think we are far away from the flames. First, numerous  fires are starting from dry lightning storms. They are then exploding quickly due to the extremely hot, dry and windy conditions combined with vegetation that is ripe for  fire. Second, there aren’t always a lot of road choices in many parts of the Pacific Northwest, so escape routes are often limited. We have had to detour on more than one occasion due to fires. Third, the smoke from these fires carry a long distance, and the smoke plumes present their own health risks.

Below are a few photos and graphics of our experiences thus far. Thankfully, they aren’t the dramatic images you see on the news. We’ll start with the graphic from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showing the fires burning in the western U.S. as of September 10th.

Bob and Julia

Postscript – The above blog was written on Thursday, September 10th, the day before we left Astoria. The last photo below was taken some 320 miles to the east at Deadman Pass, Oregon, the evening of Friday, September 11th.

The fire icons are major fires. The sunbursts are other fires as seen from satellites. If this image zoomed in closer, you would see many more sunbursts on the map. When this image was captured, we were camped near Astoria, Oregon (blue dot with arrow in the upper left).
This was one of the earlier fires we experienced: the Pine Gulch Fire north of Grand Junction Colorado. It's burned nearly 140,000 acres for over a month but is now nearly contained.
Air quality is layered on top of the fires. Green indicates good air quality. The darker the points, the less safe the air is. When we decided to go to Astoria, it showed yellow. Then the winds shifted and it changed to red, which means unhealthy air. I circled in black where we planned to go after leaving Astoria. It too was yellow when we made our plans. The next day when we arrived, the air quality had changed to be nearly 3 times the level considered hazardous. We kept driving.
Sunset in Astoria, Oregon. The smoke and ash from fires many miles away is making the sky orange.
This photo was taken near our planned camping spot circled in black on the map above. Air quality was shown as "moderate" (yellow) on the map the day before this photo was taken. This photo shows an extremely hazardous level of air quality. This is a good example of how fast conditions were changing in the area.
The map is zoomed out to show the lower 48 states and most of Canada and Mexico. The graphic now shows various gray shaded areas. They represent the extent of the the detectable smoke plumes from all the fires.
We drove over Deadman Pass in eastern Oregon on a Friday evening after leaving Astoria that morning. It wouldn't be until the following evening, some 500 miles later, just east of Ogden, Utah when we could clearly see the sun without a layer of smoke inbetween.
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