When people don’t even know if they’ve lost their homes, that creates an anxiety. And when you do know you’ve lost it all, that’s tough.
Sharon Sheldon was driving home late Tuesday night when she looked at the smoke-filled sky and was struck by the sheer magnitude of the Virginia Lake Fire, which was burning out-of-control and quickly spreading across 17,300 acres near her home.
“You could see across and it was just flames,” said Sheldon, who is the executive director of the North Cascades Chapter of the American Red Cross. “It was really overwhelming; I’ve never seen a summer like this summer.”
Hot and windy conditions coupled with recent lightning strikes have more than 20,200 firefighters from across the U.S. battling around the clock to contain wildfires that are raging across hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon, Washington, northern California, Nevada and Idaho.
Firefighters were concentrating their efforts Wednesday on fires raging through forests in Oregon and Washington State, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
For the first time this year, the national fire danger Wednesday was declared a Level Five, the highest level of danger according to NIFC.
Only a few homes have been destroyed so far this summer, but some residents in Oregon and Washington were evacuated Wednesday due to the proximity of several of the fires. The Red Cross in Okanogan has opened two shelters for residents being forced from their homes by the relentless fires -- one in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brewster, WA and another in the Okanogan Junior High School gymnasium. The Presbyterian Church in Okanogan was prepared to open their doors to residents if needed.
When the call to evacuate came, some residents had time to gather belongings, others only the clothes they had on their back. The area around Okanogan is rural and most residents have at least one dog or cat, and many have larger farm animals such as horses and cows. The Red Cross has arranged foster care for pets while their owners are staying in shelters, as animals are not allowed in the shelters. People with barns have also come forward and offered to take care of large animals.
In Washington State where nine fires are burning across 102,130 acres, residents are having a difficult time dealing with the knowledge that “there is no control,” Sheldon said. “It’s very hard and it’s unreal to them, very emotional,” she said. “One of the problems too, it no one is being allowed in at this time; there’s trees down, live wires down and this thing (fire) is growing so fast.”
As a result, no one knows the extent of damage to individual homes and property. “When people don’t even know if they’ve lost their homes, that creates an anxiety,” Sheldon said. “And when you do know you’ve lost it all, that’s tough.”
In the northern California community of Altruas, which seems to have skirted damage from fires in nearby Likely, Blue Lake, Eagleville and Jess Valley, residents are continuing to watch the plumes of smoke hovering only 30 miles away, said Donna Webb, the volunteer secretary at the First Baptist Church in Altruas. “You can’t look over there, it’s just awful,” Webb said of the fires. “We’ve been fortunate so far, it’s stayed more in the forests.”
About 3,000 firefighters from across the country are camped out on the ballpark in Altruas, where they take breaks from battling the blazes. Altruas is south of the Oregon fires in Medford and Lakeville. A group of women from the First Baptist Church had organized Tuesday night and was baking food and desserts for the firefighters, Webb said.
Meanwhile, area retirement homes are taking precautions to ensure that elderly residents are not sickened by air outside, which is laden with smoke, explained Helen Smith, the administrator of the Linda Vista Care Center in Ashland, Oregon. “We have air conditioning in the building and the windows are closed, which helps provide a good air quality for them,” Smith said. “They all seem very content and secure that we’re keeping an eye on things.”
At this time, there has been no need to evacuate the area retirement homes, Smith said.
In Ashland, OR, the Red Cross has been preparing to open shelters, but as of Wednesday morning, the fires seemed to be contained in the forest areas, said Terry Haines, Emergency Services Director for the Red Cross chapter. “We haven’t had to open any shelters up, because there’s been minimal damage to people, the wind’s blowing it away from the people and the trees don’t need a shelter,” he said, adding his office is in a watch and wait mode. “I’ve been born and raised around here, until you see the flames, you don’t worry about it.”
A fire in Quartz, near the California border burned a cabin and a house over the weekend and firefighters said at least 10 more homes in the Dog Prairie area were "undefensible." According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, the
state is spending about $1 million a day to fight the fires.
About 200 National Guard members were supplementing firefighters in
that state, after the state's governor declared an emergency.
Meanwhile, residents in Medford are concerned that the Quartz fire, which has consumed 5,500 acres 10 miles south of their town, might threaten their homes, said Jennifer Becker, a member of the Eastwood Baptist Church in Medford. Residents have been put on alert and some had voluntarily left their homes. Those who have stayed are praying the wind takes the fire away from them. “It’s just terrible, we aren’t sure what’s going on,” Becker said. “Yesterday the smoke was everywhere. You can tell there’s smoke in their air just by the way the sun looks.”
In Nevada, meanwhile, firefighters were having some success in containing some of the largest fires, but more than 200,000 acres have burned in that state this month.
The majority of the fires in Nevada are scorching ranges where people
do not live, said Jackie Leonard, a disaster response facilitator with the Church World Service/Emergency Response Program. Many fires in Nevada began as a result of lightning.
"During fire season we get lots of fires. A lot of them are sparked by lightning," Leonard said. "The fires aren't threatening any cities or any dwellings, but you got to get them out because some of those areas are grazing areas for sheep and cattle."
One factor that made much of the burning acreage prone to wildfires is the recent heat wave the dried out many regions, said Mike Apicello, a spokesman for the NIFC. Many fields were very dry when lightning storms passed over, two components needed to start fires.
However, he noted, not all wildfires are bad for the environment.
"Not all fire is bad. When you see a fire, it doesn't mean that
everything is going to burn," Apicello explained. "It actually can
benefit the landscape. Fires are healthy and beneficial. They add
nutrients to the soil."
But when the fires will be put out is a question that is impossible to answer.
Neil Molenaar, a disaster response facilitator with the Church World
Service/Emergency Response Program in Washington State said it is
impossible to predict when the fires will be extinguished.
"It's hard to say when these things are going to be suppressed,"
Molenaar said. "We just have to wait until the fires are out."
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