TALENT, Oregon — Late morning on Sept. 8, forest scientist Dominick DellaSala sat at the desk in his home office to do a final edit on a newspaper opinion piece. The topic: The need to better prepare for catastrophic wildfires — or “black swan events” — that can rampage through neighborhoods.
His computer screen went dark. The power had gone out.
He went outside to investigate the outage. Looking south, he spotted a dense cloud of smoke.
“This was totally black. It was huge. And it was heading in our direction,” DellaSala recalls.
DellaSala spent the next few hours up on his roof, cleaning out gutters and hosing down the asphalt shingles before evacuating. His home was spared as the fire veered away from his street, but more than 2,800 structures and three people were killed in one of the most destructive wildfires in Northwest history.
This one had nothing to do the management of thickly forested Northwest mountain slopes. It started in a patch of grass by a dog park in the north end of Ashland on a hot day with fierce, dry winds. The fire raced through a county greenway park, chewed through roadside brush and jumped into the heart of two communities — Talent and Phoenix, with a combined population of more than 10,000. Then houses, trailers and commercial buildings became the fuel that fed its relentless advance.
In the immediate aftermath of the historic early September fires, people here and in other ravaged Pacific Northwest towns such as Malden, in Eastern Washington, are primarily focused on the need to find short-term shelter for those suddenly without homes. But already, amid a warming climate when wildfire is forecast to be a greater force, an urgent question arises: How to rebuild in a way that is more resistant to the flames.
“Thinning trees in the backcountry, that won’t make the difference. We need to spend the money to fire-harden our communities,” says DellaSala, who is chief scientist for Wild Heritage, a forest conservation project of the Earth Island Institute, an environmental nonprofit.
Safer, equitable housing
In Talent and Phoenix, the post-fire challenges include building a new generation of affordable — and safer — housing for those who lived in trailer parks decimated by the fire.
Many of these residents are lower-wage workers who pick fruit in nearby orchards, tend to vineyards and labor in service and other industries. Long before the fire, they struggled to find shelter in a southwest Oregon region that faced a severe housing crisis as prosperous retirees and other newer arrivals pushed up real estate prices.
Manufactured and mobile homes are often aging and sometimes rundown but have offered affordable alternatives to renting or owning a place in nearby Ashland, site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a big tourist destination.
With entire mobile home parks leveled by fire, developers could try to move in and build upscale residences on that land. But there is plenty of support for helping lower-income residents find a way to return.
In Talent, city officials say they are considering a new ordinance to ensure that the mobile home and trailer parks are not replaced by high-priced housing. “Those are the most vulnerable communities, and we need to make sure that development doesn’t displace them,” said Zac Moody, Talent’s community development director.
In a region of Oregon with plenty of out-of-the-box thinkers, some are working to develop a broader vision for rebuilding communities. A Southwest Oregon coalition group, My Valley, My Home, proposes to work with government agencies, foundations, builders and others to design more sustainable housing. The group also wants to find a way for more people to take an ownership stake in their homes and also provide more dwellings for the southwest Oregon’s homeless.
“Just like COVID, this is shining a bright spotlight on existing inequities. So, this is a moment where we could potentially do something different,” said Charlie Bauer, a Southern Oregon Education Service District employee who works with migrant children and has participated in some of the group’s meetings.
“I lost everything”
Most of Talent and Phoenix did not burn. But the fire struck hard in downtown corridors of both towns. Those returning to see what’s left of their homes found painfully few remains in neighborhoods that looked like they were bombed into oblivion.
Renee Durgin said she spent 32 years scrubbing floors in a nursing home to pay for her 1979 two-bedroom trailer that she found — on her first return Sept. 18 — to be reduced to ashes and twisted metal roofing.
“I lost everything,” Durgin said as she searched for a pair of treasured earrings among the wreckage.
Julio Flores, a mobile automotive mechanic, said even his tools and stockpile of vehicle parts were wrecked by the fire, along with the cash savings he kept in his fire-destroyed trailer home in Phoenix.
“I have no insurance. And there is nothing left,” said Flores, who has been able to resume some work with the aid of donated tools.
In such firestorms, many buildings are doomed by embers, which may be lofted for hundreds of yards then fall like snowflakes. These burning bits of debris find ways to penetrate interiors, which are typically filled with furniture, rugs, paneling and other volatile materials.
“Embers will exploit any vulnerability in a home — and once they get inside and ignite, it is very unlikely to survive,” said Kelly Pohl, a researcher at Headwater Economics, who co-authored a 2018 paper on fire-resistant homes.
California fire codes put into place in 2008 are designed to protect buildings from such assault. And a McClatchy News analysis of homes lost to the 2018 fire in Paradise, California, indicates such codes can make a big difference.
The analysis found that 51% of the 350 single-family homes built after 2008 in the path of the Camp Fire were undamaged, according to Cal Fire data and Butte County property records. Only 18% of the 12,100 built before 2008 survived.
Other communities in the Northwest also are developing tougher codes to construct more fire-resistant homes.
In Southwest Oregon, Medford has adopted new standards, Ashland this fall is expected to update construction standards, and a push to enact similar measures is expected in Talent, Phoenix and other communities.
In Washington, east-of-the-Cascades Kittitas County has fire-resistant codes in place for new construction. Legislation passed in 2018 has set the stage for changes in building standards in other parts of the state. The law called on the Department of Natural Resources to map areas where homes and other development are built near or within lands at greater risk of wildfire. In those zones, which cover more than a third of the state’s residences, local governments must now adopt building standards that require more fire-resistant roofs, siding and decks, and driveways able to accommodate emergency vehicles.
“We just completed the map this past month and have published it,” said Ashley Blazina, who serves as community wildfire preparedness coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.
Clues among the ash
The Almeda Fire offers stark evidence of how flames can completely consume entire blocks of urban homes. But a walk through the Talent burn zone also offers clues on what can be done to protect buildings from fire.
A recently erected church, for example, emerged largely unscathed. Built on a concrete slab, it had a metal roof to fend off the embers, fiber-cement siding that can resist flames, and metal doors. There were double-paned, tempered windows less likely to shatter in the heat, and narrow recessed vents outfitted with fine mesh screens to keep out ash.
The church’s architect, Ray Kistler, said it was one of three buildings designed in similar fashion that ended up in the path of the fire and did not burn. Kistler said they were built more with the goal of long-term durability than fire survival. Yet he was pleased with how they fared. One mistake, he said, was using bark chips in the landscaping, which smoldered the day after the fire as he drove by the church for an inspection.
“Flames were starting to lick up the walls, and I just happened to be there,” Kistler said. “So, I drug my boots along the ground and put the fire out.”
Trees also told a fire story.
When planted close to houses, they are typically viewed as a fire hazard. And some volatile pines and other trees did indeed get torched in the Almeda blaze. But some that were green and leafy survived. A few appeared to take the brunt of fiery embers, and thus helped shield nearby structures.
A child’s treehouse, nestled inside a lush maple, was intact even as the homes around it were leveled. And an old wood-sided house — shielded from oncoming flames by a scraggly border of deciduous trees — made it through the fire.
“This house had every opportunity to burn, and it did not burn. I saw the fire go up these trees, and just disappear,” said Scott Balcom, a builder who stayed in the burn zone for much of Sept. 8 in a losing effort to save his own home a short distance to the south.
Fire ripped through greenway
The Almeda Fire was caused by humans, but who started it — and whether they did so intentionally or inadvertently — remains under investigation, according to Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara. The destruction was boosted by a second fire started later that day in Phoenix, and a suspect in that fire, 41-year-old Michael Jarrod Bakkela, has been charged with two counts of arson, 15 counts of criminal mischief and 14 counts of reckless endangerment.
The main fire’s route passed through portions of a 20-mile-long greenway and bike path that follows the tree-lined course of Bear Creek.
This year, the fire risk in the greenway had both county fire and law enforcement officials on edge. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with space in short supply at homeless shelters, some 150 people were asked to remain sheltering in place in the greenway, where handwashing stations and bathrooms were set up. Earlier this year, dozens of small fires had to be put out. Officials feared a bigger blaze, and four fire breaks were scraped down to bare earth this summer in hopes of helping to stop the advance of flames.
“The greenway has just been a nightmare,” Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said.
But it does not appear likely that the initial Almeda blaze, which started sometime before 11 a.m., originated from a campfire.
The ignition point was well outside the greenway, in an open area by the dog park that was not a typical camping spot for people experiencing homelessness. And Kernan Turner, a retired Associated Press reporter who lives nearby, said he saw no slow burn from a campfire. The fire came up suddenly, with big flames that torched a border of blackberry bushes by his house, then swept across a grass field to reach the greenway fuel.
“It just roared. The flames were 20 feet high,” Turner said.
The fire, fed by more berry brambles in the greenway, rapidly moved north, overtaking a person who has yet to be identified and is likely to have been homeless. “They had nowhere to go,” said Chris Chambers, chief of Ashland Fire and Rescue Wildfire Division.
As fire reached Talent, Balcom, the builder who lost his home, could hear a series of explosions as propane tanks — next to many homes — emptied and the fuel ignited. He could also make out the short, staccato sounds of ammunition stored in people’s homes as it went off.
The winds brought embers to a single-story home across the street, and upwind, from Balcom’s house.
Fire engine crews arrived to try to save the building. Then they shuttled off to deal with other emergencies on that frantic afternoon. Another structure — an apartment complex — caught fire. Balcom tried to use his own hose to save that building, but the stream from his would not reach a corner of the roof that began to burn.
“My heart sank when I saw that. The wind was blowing really hard my way, and I figured the chance of my house being saved was really remote,” he said.
Longtime warning signs
In the aftermath of the fire, DellaSala feels fortunate to live in a neighborhood untouched by the flames.
With his electrical power restored, he is now back at his desk and writing more emails.
Politicians in Congress and state legislatures are once again calling for more efforts to thin and conduct controlled burns for “fuel reduction” in forests.
This fire season has demonstrated, yet again, that many fires in the West burn largely in shrub and grasslands, which can easily and rapidly carry flames into housing developments. And, DellaSala is urging post-fire legislation be narrowly targeted. He wants more public funds spent and tax credits offered to build communities better able to survive such fire.
When he takes a break for walks, DellaSala heads four blocks east to the fire zone. He wrestles with his emotions — a mix of grief and anger — as he gazes again upon the bleak tableau of loss in the heart of his town.
“We’ve been warning about this for years,” he said. “It’s in my face every day.”