(more appropriate for Facebook, but I don’t do FB) Some of you have emailed me with concerns about the massive wildfires raging in Oregon (and California) and of any possible impact on us specifically. It’s by far the worst Oregon has ever seen, a tragedy of epic proportions in terms of the loss of life, property and so much pristine nature. It’s going to be painful to drive up the spectacular McKenzie River valley and see where several towns were devastated and the forest denuded. But such is the reality of living out West during a time of global warming.
As to us personally, we missed the worst of it by escaping to the peaks of Eastern Oregon.
We woke up Tuesday morning to an apocalyptic scene outside: the sky was a dark orange and ash was falling like snow. The winds that had accelerated these fires were coming from the east, so we packed the van and headed east, and within 20 miles were in clear skies. We felt almost guilty. And we spent the next four days out in Eastern Oregon, enjoying the mostly pristine skies, until the shifting wind brought the smoke out to us this morning.
We spent the first night on the rim of Hole-in-the-Ground, a one-mile across maar (volcanic explosion crater). It’s a bit hard to appreciate it in this picture, but it’s a perfect natural amphitheater. I always imagine Pink Floyd playing there in 1970 or so.
We could barely make out one other camper rig on the other side, but otherwise we were all alone.
The air was still absolutely pristine, which was brought home forcefully after it got dark on this moonless night: the Milky Way lived up fully to its name, a giant belt of creamy white, punctuated by the brighter individual stars and constellations. A shooting star was highlight of the evening’s stellar attractions.
In the morning, we headed to Fort Rock, a giant tuff ring located in an Ice Age lake bed. This is a vintage shot I found which includes a University of Oregon Jeep Station Wagon.
Fort Rock was created when basalt magma rose to the surface and encountered the wet muds of a lake bottom. Powered by a jet of steam, molten basalt was blown into the air, creating a fountain of hot lava particles and frothy ash. The pieces and blobs of hot lava and ash rained down around the vent and formed a saucer-shaped ring of lapilli tuff and volcanic ash sitting like an island in the lake waters.
We hiked up into the “fort”.
To check out the formations in greater detail.
We then headed up into the Fremont National Forest above Silver Lake, with the intention of hiking up Hager Mountain, the prominent peak in the area, and hence the location for a still-staffed fire lookout on top.
It was a splendid hike through big old Ponderosa pines, and the woman who staffed it invited us up and to look around. She’s pursuing a graduate degree in nature writing, so this is a highly suitable job for her. We ended up chatting for quite some time; these folks do like a bit of company once in a while.
To the west, we could see the wall of smoke hovering over the Cascades in the distance.
And she pointed out a fresh new blaze just getting going to the southeast. It had been started by a mountain biker who got cold and built a fire to warm up! Some of the stories about how these fires start are hair-raising. A gender-reveal party with fireworks? Mind-boggling.
Because of that growing fire to the south-east, we decide to head further northeast, to the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.
Strawberry Mountain towers over the John Day River Valley, and I’d long held an ambition to explore it and possibly climb it. We entered the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness from the back side (south), which provides access to several high lakes and streams.
The next morning we set out for High Lake.
Butterflies flitted about everywhere, feeding on the last of the wildflowers still in bloom. This one’s coloration was different than most.
Stephanie and the dog rested and watched, while I…
…took a dip in the very brisk water (at almost 8,000′). I make it a point to swim in every lake and stream where possible, no matter how cold. A fire had come through here some years earlier.
Since this trip was completely spontaneous, I did not research the routes to the summit in advance. My trail guide described a rather grueling 12.5 mile round trip hike from the north side. But in perusing my map, the shortest (7.5 miles round trip) of several options to do so was actually very close to the Wild Lake trailhead, so we found a nice spot to pull off the road and camped, which allowed us to have an uncharacteristically early start on the hike.
This is the first view of the summit from the trail, where it turns a corner from an abandoned roadway. It was hard to gauge just how big and far it was, or how steep the trail would be. It looked a bit challenging from here.
But it turned out to be a fairly easy route up, and the shale was a lot more pleasant to climb on than the typical soft and shifting scree in the Cascades. The views were of course superb.
Little Man, who is going to be nine next month, was a trooper, albeit ready for a drink.
And he was quite happy to forgo the views for a sunny nap.
We woke up this morning there in dense smoke. Time to head home, and a rather depressing ride it was. And sadly, this is the view out of my window as I write this. Yukk. But it’s supposed to get better tomorrow.
And I have nothing to complain about; my heart goes out to those that were really affected.
Thanks for the update Paul. I literally came here now to ask how you were. It’s not as bad here in San Diego, but I can definitely feel it in my lungs.
Nice to hear you are alive and well, after looking at the quality of air maps in the NY Times this morning. You and your family’s well being immediately came to mind along with the those that are much worse off. Thanks for the update. Bell well. All the best, Tim
Glad you all are OK. My daughter is settled into her first apartment in SF and she has sent some terrible looking pictures of the smoke, and orange glow at night from the fires to the north… but I think it is letting up some now.
Thanks for the update Paul.
Glad you guys are safe and well.
Over the last several months, Celeste and I have been moving ourselves from LA to Denver. This has involved 7 separate road trips, five to move personal vehicles, and two trips in Ryder rental trucks (I moved my daughter from LA to Albuquerque in a separate trip). The next time I make a major life change, I plan on avoiding fire season.
In late August, the Glenwood Canyon fire shutdown I-70 in Western Colorado, adding 2 to 3 hours to three drives. In both Cali and Colorado the smoke turned sunshine into dusk, and occasionally led to spectacular orange sunsets.
Denver saw smoke and ash falling from the sky thanks to a fire located west of Fort Collins (60 miles north). I’d be interested in hearing from Jim Klein, since I believe his house is located just east of that maelstrom.
Thankfully, Colorado saw some precipitation early this week, which damped down the fires (but did not end them). I pray the same rain or snow arrives on the West Coast ASAP.
It was literally dusk-like dark at mid-day a few days ago for a few days with a weird red/orange glow on everything and ash falling all over. Automatic headlights came on all day. Then the freak snow and drizzle after that for a couple of days (even more up in Laramie when I popped up twice a couple of days ago). As you said, now it’s really nice outside without any visible smoke, hopefully it stays this way.
We’ll have to hook up sometime once you get settled in – Welcome back to the promised land!
Sounds good – we purchased a home, but don’t get possession until September 28.
I’ll drop you an email when we get our boxes emptied.
Thankfully we haven’t seen the ash raining down in the Seattle this year, but we had that from the Canadian fires in 2017 and it was terrible. We do have a fair amount of smoke though.
It does seem we have had an increase in recent years of the number of fires caused by outright idiots doing things they should know not to do. It may just be that we hear about it more thanks to the connected world we live in, or that they just put more effort into determining and releasing the cause of fires than they did in the past.
In Vancouver British Columbia, we are blanketed in smoke from the Oregon fires. This is the third year in a row.
I have lived in this area most of my life. The last three years were the only time I have seen fires and smoke like this. It has never been like this before.
It makes my blood boil to hear climate change deniers bloviate so they can ass-kiss politicians who pollute for profit and stop the progress of meaningful change, all so they can keep the staus quo-and their pockets filled.
The pandemic has been an environmentalists dream come true :
“Environmental pollution is reduced up to 30%”
Many predict that much of the work from home rather than commute to the workplace will be permenent.
What’s truly infuriating is that we have a climate change denier (and a many other things denier) in the White House. You don’t have one of those at 24 Sussex Drive, but that does you only limited good. It’s all one earth.
My brother has preschool-age grandchildren. It really bothers him that they’re going to live to see things get ugly.
President Kennedy said it well in his “peace speech” in June, 1963:
“So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Global cooperation is the only rational way to deal with global problems such as environmental issues and pandemics. It is extremely unproductive to engage instead in a blame game for political gain. Of course the first step is to believe in reason and science.
I have to bite here.
First and foremost, I’m really happy Paul is safe from these terrible fires. 2020 is a year ripe with dread and uncertainty, and now we are dealing with huge fires out west and an active hurricane situation in the Atlantic. Ready to be done with all of this.
That said, It makes my blood boil when I see/hear discussion of climate change in conjunction with coverage of sudden, historically significant weather events, such forest fires, hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, floods, droughts, etc.
Why, you might ask?
It’s not that I’m a climate denier. My background is in science, and I understand that earth’s climate is warming. I also agree that humans are contributing to this warming. I (and many scientists) do not agree that we are en route to global climate catastrophe, but I agree that we need to take reasonable action to reduce our emissions over time.
My blood boils at this alarmism because there’s a great chance that we could go for a long time without a major hurricane making landfall (we went through a dry spell there in the late 2000s), without a major forest fire out west, without a historic tornado outbreak, etc. When that happens it’s very easy for deniers to say “I told you so”, and tune out the little changes that really indicate warming is happening.
Will global warming cause more forest fires? In some climates (including our west coast’s), they will. Understand though that “worse” doesn’t equate to “worst in history”, as other factors inevitably contribute more to making the “worst” fires. In fact, in terms of “worst”, global warming will not be high on the list of contributing factors in forest fires. With that in mind, California needs to take a good, long look at their forest management practices moving forward. I know Trump said it so many don’t want to believe it, but California and Oregon both have done a poor job of managing forests in recent decades. Forests, once they reach a certain point, will ‘reset’ whether humans initiate it or not. When a forest has reached its peak beauty, with large trees and a beautiful canopy, the ‘reset’ is coming. We can do it through logging and controlled burns, or we can leave it to nature to take care of it. Guess which one is safer?
Last thing — there’ll be no progress, anywhere, if we can’t learn to listen and process viewpoints of those with whom we disagree. Hopefully my points here won’t fall on deaf ears.
I too have issues when there is a rush to judgment about these types of events. It is very difficult to correctly assign blame to weather events like hurricanes and high winds like the ones that grossly exacerbated (and in some cases started) these fires.
It is all too obvious (and logical) that the frequency and size of these various types of events are being influenced by GW. The trend lines were predicted and are being confirmed by history. So yes, in general terms, it’s true, but it’s impossible to say that any individual even was “caused by GW”. But there’s little doubt that GW is at least exacerbating many/most of them, due to increasing drought and higher temperatures.
As to forest management, this is an issue that goes back much much further than the past few decades. Prior to European-Americans arriving in CA, 1.5 million acres on average burned each year. That’s significantly higher than the current season. The Native Americans depended on these natural (and purposefully-started) fires to keep the forests (and grasslands) healthy and productive.
Fire suppression started a long time ago, and became a deeply ingrained practice (“Smokey the Bear”) that has been difficult to change, especially now that such a large number of people live in these areas that were once very sparsely populated.
Trying to counter over 100 years of forest fire suppression is a very complex and difficult undertaking. Efforts to to thin the forests and control burns have been implemented for years here now. We regularly see these in the woods here. But it’s an epic task. It would require massive budgets. And the issue of folks building and living in fire-prone areas, and not building with fire-resistant materials and practices grossly exacerbates the problem.
This issue is somewhat comparable to so many that we have created for ourselves in the past couple of hundred of years, and accelerating in the 20th century and up. These are massive problems that would require major sacrifice to fix properly. Are people willing to accept that? I could make a long list of similar issues (homelessness, income inequality, housing, medical access, nutrition, etc…..) that all require massive investment and sacrifice to begin to address properly.
Knee jerk reactions and finger pointing is easy, but usually reflects a lack of deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues and the profound challenges in fixing them.
Thank you Paul and everyone else for the insight.
Awesome post Paul, and I agree on (nearly) all counts.
This is a good example of well-meaning management coming back to hurt us, not a unique situation by any means. I think your most powerful point is that prior to arrival of Europeans, 1.5 million acres burned per year. Many people fail, I believe, to realize the importance of fire to many ecosystems. While immediately destructive, it’s pivotal to the long-term survival of many forest ecosystems. Here in NC, and probably out your way as well, there are plants that will not begin to grow until a fire has pushed through.
While I was teaching science at a high school, an adjacent stand of mature pine forest was clearcut and burned. A student cried(!) over it, but it made a good opportunity to explain all of that to the class. Here, biodiversity is much greater in an area for a few years after a forest is cleared, than it is once the forest has matured.
Regarding knee jerk reactions, I feel that many on both sides of the political spectrum watch their ‘news’ source of choice, and take it as gospel. Our ‘news’, mostly just reality shows based on current events, doesn’t do much to deepen understanding of anything these days.
Glad you were able to get out of the smoke for a bit and what route did you take to Eastern Oregon, I thought fires shut them all down. Great photos of places I’d love to visit and Little Man taking a nap is cute.
My wife and I were actually going to drive Oregon 58 from Eugene to Crescent this weekend. We were going to then drive Oregon 138 to Roseburg. We did that trip in reverse last month and really loved all the sights including Crater Lake. Tualatin is too close to evacuation zones, a lot of Oregon is on fire, and the air is not safe so we just hunkered down this weekend instead. Just last weekend we visited The Dalles and Hood River, what a difference a few days makes.
Hwy 58, then 97 to 131, to Silver Lake. Then the Christmas Valley Highway to 395, to Strawberry.
Coming home, we took 26 from John Day, then had to go south on 97 at Bend back to 58 because all the other more direct routes over the Cascades are closed.
Thanks for the info. A bit of confusion though for me. Oregon route 131 is in Tillamook County and U.S 131 is in Michigan.
Oops; Oregon Route 31, actually. From La Pine heading southeast.
Your last picture looks very much like Vancouver today. Apparently Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle are currently the #1, 2, & 3 cities for worst air quality on the planet. It’s sad and frightening. Like Canucknucklehead, I’ve lived here for decades, and a week of smoke is now becoming a regular summer occurrence. The impact of an increasingly industrialized world of 7.8 billion people (up from 6 billion in just 20 years) on the biosphere has to be taken seriously.
I woke up Wednesday to the scene you had on Tuesday. If you went out on Wednesday night and used the beam of a flashlight one could see fine snow falling through the beam. Almost, but not quite as fine, as the ash from the Mt. Pinatubo volcano and probably similar to Mt. St. Helen.
Then on Thursday the weather changed dramatically. Temps down 30-35 degrees with a low layer of fog and the smoke layer on top. The fog was a barrier till Saturday when it cleared and the smoke came down. I was on the USS Hornet, smoke closed the ship, but work on the Island I must and you couldn’t see San Francisco 6 miles away across the Bay.
Was it climate change that started these fires or was it arson? All the politicians and major networks blame climate change, but British newspaper stories show the pictures of the people who were charged with arson in Oregon.
Apparently arson in Oregon but not California from two weeks ago. Back then we had a thunderstorm come through the north with no rain but lots of thunder and lighting. I last heard thunder that loud back east just before moving in 1966. There was over 1000 lighting strikes throughout the north that night. The dry brush, hillsides, and offshore winds took it from there.
Jim the Australian media was full of reports that our recent devestating bush fires were caused by arson, not climate change. Mainly by climate denying media but also mainstream. Nine months later after thorough investgation the ABC news reports that not a single fire was caused by arson.
You’re not hearing it right. Climate change creates conditions for fires to be much more common and more powerful. Drought makes for excellent tinder. And heat speeds up the fires.
Some were started naturally a few weeks back by lightning strikes. Others by arson, and some by negligence/foolishness.
Climate change doesn’t generally directly start the fires; but it makes for conditions that make the fires more likely to happen as well as being worse once they’ve started, due to extreme heat, drought and other conditions exacerbated by that.
Obviously it’s impossible to pin point it all on climate change. But the statistics very clearly show a substantial increase in the number and size of the fires in more recent times.
Glad to hear you’re doing ok. Beautiful country. Diesel says hello to Little Man…
Aw; cute. And he still has his lovely ears. LM came to us without his ears, which is a practice that should be banned. It does seem to be less common in just the past few years, fortunately.
AQI is still almost 500 in the Whit. This is getting old and I’m rather envious of Paul and Steph. Might go up Prairie Mountain tomorrow to get some fresh air.
Glad everyone is safe. Very tough for all those who lost homes or worse.
Eastern Oregon is surely one of the great secrets of America, at least, outside of America anyway. I had never heard of it before CC. Maybe the dry-looking country does not have the pull of green lushness for conventional photogenic tourist promotion, but coming from a desert country, I am continually stunned by what you have shown here over time. Stunning.
You note that driving into places and towns that are now devastated will be hard, rightly so. Can I tell you from direct experience in this country that it really is, but once a relatively small amount of time has passed, perhaps just 6 months, those communities WANT you back there? For a sense of normality, connection, a little of whatever commerce might be available, maybe even just to talk and tell their stories. The damage to folks and whole communities can be very profound, and for part of the long healing, the want for people to return is in fact a need.
And, perhaps as perhaps a slightly selfish motive, nature provides some really unexpected beauty amongst the horror as it starts the long slog back to a version of what it once was.
You and Stephanie definitely made the best of a really crummy situation. Hopefully the looming change of season will happen soon enough to further aid in squelching these fires.
Good to hear you’re OK and getting some hiking in despite.
The pandemic seems to have increased the level of idiocy in the outdoors, as the uninformed try camping for the first time. On our Algonquin canoe trip we had our permits checked by rangers, who said they had to do extra checks this year because of the number of people who didn’t know what they’re doing. We ourselves saw several examples this summer, but thankfully we don’t have tinder dry woods this year.
We too did something similar, leaving our house at the end of August in the care of two evacuee families from the Santa Cruz Lightning Complex Fire, once it was clear our neighborhood would be safe. We drove straight through to our daughter’s house in Clackamas County outside Portland (and spotting this Cadillac https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classic-1941-cadillac-with-a-bit-of-updating-500-cubic-inches-worth/ on the way, outside CC Ground Zero in Springfield, Oregon). After two days of blue skies and a comfortable bed at our daughter’s, our road trip began in earnest, sleeping on the ground in a tent for the next 20 days. The first nights were outside Bend, then we also hiked in the Strawberry Mountains, though we came in from the north; then on through central to eastern Idaho, for a week mountain biking in Victor and hiking in the Tetons. We returned via the Owyhee Canyon and then Steens Mountain in Oregon, worried as we began to see and smell smoke and heard that Clackamas County was on fire (our daughter’s place is safe much closer to Portland). Back home, the fire is mostly out, but will continue for years in its impact on our community and the lives affected.
Here is a picture from Saturday morning of our trusty conveyance for this wonderful trip, over 3200 miles with hundreds of miles of dirt and some steep and rocky 4wd roads … perhaps the last of many such outings it’s taken us on. But that may be a COAL for another day.
That sounds like quite the trip. We’ve been to most of those before. Beautiful spots.
As a Klamath Falls, Oregon resident, I really enjoyed seeing these familiar scenes. Thank you for sharing!
An atmospheric, picturesque journey. Thanks for sharing it with us. I’m glad you and Stephanie are in good health. Stay safe.
I love your trip reports; keep them coming! I’m glad to hear you guys are safe and able to get out and enjoy yourself despite what’s happening in your neck of the woods and worldwide. CC in general is a great escape from the craziness of 2020.
I am late getting here, but am so glad to hear you are OK out there. It is a bad time for the west. The arsonists (though far from the only causes) baffle me.