Fire season requires attention from all of us
Where were you last summer when you heard about the fire in the Columbia River Gorge?
The Eagle Creek Fire was only one of many wildfires that broke out in Oregon and throughout the American West last year. In fact, it wasn't even one of the bigger ones.
The 76.5 square miles covered by the Eagle Creek Fire alone is more than the areas of Beaverton, Tigard, Aloha, Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Cornelius, North Plains, Banks and Gaston combined.
But elsewhere in the state, the Chetco Bar Fire in Southern Oregon dwarfed the Eagle Creek Fire at about 191,000 acres burned to the Eagle Creek Fire's roughly 49,000 acres, almost four times its size. The Thomas Fire in Southern California was considerably larger than both of them put together, scorching some 282,000 acres across two counties once all was said and done.
Why recapitulate all these numbers?
Fire season is upon us. This isn't the only time of year that a major wildfire can start — after all, the Thomas Fire had firefighters working at it over Christmas last year — but it is considered to be the most dangerous time. It's hot, it's dry and there's plenty of fuel to burn. Just last week, a hay truck caught fire outside Yamhill, setting roadside brush ablaze.
On Sunday, summer lightning returned to the skies over Southern Oregon and Northern California, with an estimated 70 lightning strikes, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. The Klamathon Fire on the Oregon/California border is close to 100 percent contained but, as of Monday, the Silver Creek fire was only about 25 percent contained.
Washington County fire agencies jointly issued a burn ban immediately after the Independence Day holiday earlier this month. It is in effect until further notice.
If you think wildfires can't happen in our neck of the woods, you're wrong. Ask anyone older than 65 and they'll remind you about the Tillamook Burn, which destroyed 350,000 acres in the Tillamook State Forest a stone's throw from Forest Grove.
The Burn, actually a series of wildfires between 1933 and 1951, seared itself into the collective consciousness of Oregonians and led to decades of restoration efforts in the forest. At its peak, the blaze created hurricane-level winds, stretched 40 miles wide and rose thousands of feet high. It could be seen from downtown Portland and debris floated hundreds of miles out to sea.
People attending the first day of school in the northern parts of the Beaverton School District last year were greeted to "ash fall" on their cars — a grim reminder of how close our communities are to forests.
Wildfires are in that category of calamities often referred to as "acts of God," but they actually have a variety of causes. One of the most common is human activity. The fires that made up the Tillamook Burn were manmade. The first two are believed to have been caused by logging operations in the forest, a third by a discarded cigarette.
The Eagle Creek Fire was started by teenagers with fireworks goofing off in a protected forest. From this irresponsible, juvenile behavior came a rush of flames and smoke that destroyed beloved trail areas, forced people to evacuate their homes and darkened Portland-area skies for days. Even as late as this May, firefighters were still responding to flare-ups from areas not fully extinguished.
But it's important to keep in mind that you don't have to be deliberately trying to start a wildfire to be responsible for one.
Purposefully lighting fireworks and throwing them into a wooded area, as the culprits behind the Eagle Creek Fire are alleged to have done, sits at the extreme end of human activity that causes fires. Other wildfires have started from such simple things as a campfire or bonfire that gets out of hand, or a lit cigarette being thrown from a car window, or even ejecta from a car's catalytic converter igniting nearby vegetation — as is believed responsible for the Creston Fire in California this summer.
So, we implore you: Pay attention to fire risk. Obey burn bans. Be conscious when you camp, when you smoke, when you drive, or when you do anything else that involves hot materials or open flames.
It's impossible to stop wildfires altogether. They're one of nature's ways of renewing itself. But what nature doesn't need is for careless humans to contribute to the process. And our communities could certainly do without another summer of ash and smoke — or worse.
As Smokey Bear says in those famous old advertisements: "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."
Or, for music lovers of a younger generation, repeat the words from Sufjan Stevens.
"What did you learn from the Tillamook Burn?"