Inside the scorched towns of Talent and Phoenix, Oregon

Arizona News

Published 5:53 pm PDT, Thursday, September 17, 2020

PHOENIX, Ore. – The Almeda Fire sparked up around the evening of Sept. 8 near Ashland, Ore. Driven by a warm, dry wind, it sped north to the commercial hub of Medford. Along the way, flames drove through the two small agricultural cities of Talent and Phoenix, where apple orchards, tomatoes and vineyards surround the quaint, historic main streets.

Now the towns are splashed with fluorescent pink flame retardant, which stains roads between homes that are burned to their foundations.

Though there are cores of fires are burning in California, here in Oregon, which is a small fraction of the size, authorities are fighting more than 35 fires across the state. This is unusual for the Pacific Northwest, and it comes at the beginning of a fire season that across the West has been cropping up earlier as a result of wet winters followed abruptly by dry heat and wind.

More than 800,000 acres have burned in Oregon this year, and at least 10 people have been killed by flames moving so fast they have overwhelmed cars in the Talent and Phoenix area – a tragic characteristic of the fire that destroyed Paradise, Calif., two years ago.

A drive around Phoenix and Talent – which have about 11,000 residents total – reveals the cruel course the fire took, blown by winds that shifted often. Whole neighborhoods on one side of the North Pacific Highway in Talent are unscathed. Just across the street, the Goodnight Inn is in ruins.

The Talent Car Wash is a tangle of tubes, ruined water pumps and ash. A heavy smoke, obscuring visibility to less than a mile, settles low over the ground. It is a choking, headache-inducing fact of life at the moment, highly dangerous to those most susceptible to respiratory problems and other health issues.

Approximately 3,000 homes and buildings have been lost or damaged in a fire that is still under investigation. Law enforcement officials said the cause of the fire is suspicious. Many streets are blocked off; only residents with green stickers that prove they live in the neighborhood are allowed entry.

Signs along one rural highway, outside a home with a garage full of old cars, heavy farm equipment and spare parts, reads: “You Loot, We Shoot. You’ve Been Warned.” A Trump-Pence sign also is prominently featured at the home. There have been few reports of looting.

Building inspectors are now going from house to house to inspect the damage. Homes that are uninhabitable are marked with a pink X. No one has been reported missing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is on the scene helping provide immediate financial relief.

These towns were tourist attractions before the fires, flatlands rising into green hills. About 15 miles southeast of Phoenix is Ashland, home to Southern Oregon University and a Shakespeare Festival that draws thousands of people each year.

Wine-tasting tours are popular, the bed-and-breakfasts quaint. Many have been spared by the fire, which gives some hope for the region’s recovery.

Fire retardant, which helped stop the fire in its tracks, covers buildings, homes and streets.

These fires are vivid, deadly evidence of climate change, now accelerating, as scores of late-summer blazes tax more than 14,000 firefighters, from the border with Canada to the border with Mexico. More than half a dozen states are affected directly, and billowing smoke has blown east all the way to the District of Columbia.

This has happened now for four consecutive years, especially in California. But in parts of Oregon and Washington state, which has some of the highest rainfall totals in the country, the fires this year are a surprising, unwelcome novelty. The dry, offshore winds, which whip flames toward the Pacific and its population centers, came weeks early.

Fire season is really no season at all anymore. This is now, simply, fire country. Flames arrive early and late – as was the case with the December 2018 fire in California’s Santa Barbara and Ventura counties – and burn swiftly through years of parched undergrowth. Controlled burns are becoming more common, but so is the heat and the wind. And this “season” of 2020 has just begun.

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