Since it started by lighting six weeks ago, it’s burned nearly 100,000 acres and now stands just five miles away from the coastal city of Brookings, Oregon. OPB reporter Kristian Foden-Vencil is in Crook County and joined “Morning Edition” host Geoff Norcross to talk about the situation this morning. Here’s a transcript of their conversation:
Q&A with OPB reporter Kristian Foden-Vencil
Geoff Norcross: So just how bad is this fire now?
Kristian Foden-Vencil: Well, it’s destroyed 20 outbuildings, 13 vehicles and five homes. A Level 3 mandatory evacuation order was in place for 3,400 homes. That’s been dropped to level 2 now as firefighters have made some progress and the weather has turned more cooperative. But in total, up to 4,000 people have been affected.
Over the last couple days, lower temperatures, higher humidity and cooler air off the coast have helped. There’s even a bit of rain this morning. But emergency crews say it’s going to be October by the time the fire is out. And, as you know, five miles is not very far for a fire to travel if conditions turn bad.
GN: It’s been burning since July; why is it still not under control?
KFV: I was a community meeting in Gold Beach, Oregon, last night, and that’s the question a lot of people are asking.
But some people who live in this area think the fire should have been tackled more aggressively with large aerial tankers. That is more expensive.
The local state legislator, Republican Rep. David Brock Smith, says he’ll be asking questions about all of that later. Right now, he says, people are scared and the focus should be on putting the fire out.
GN: Six weeks is a long time to fight a fire that’s still 0 percent contained. Are there any exacerbating factors?
KFV: Yeah, there are a few problems.
Smith notes that there are a lot of dead trees and undergrowth here because of Sudden Oak Death. That means there’s a lot of dry tinder that burns quickly.
Some people think the fire hasn’t been a priority because it started in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest — and there’s a movement to let some fires burn out naturally. But incident command staff tell me they’ve been trying to stop the fire since it started.
Smoke has prevented aircraft from working the fire. It was so thick it even obstructed Monday’s eclipse.
Finally, there’s a local weather phenomenon called the “Chetco effect” or “Brookings effect” that can raise temperatures. If conditions are right, the wind blows from inland very hot and very dry. That’s what happened last weekend as the fire went from 13,000 acres to 100,000 in a flash.
GN: I understand the Red Cross has set up a relief shelter.
KFV: Yes, I was there yesterday afternoon. It’s at an elementary school in Gold Beach, Oregon. On Monday night, they had more than 50 people sleeping on cots in the gymnasium. By Tuesday night, that number was down to 30.
But I spoke to several families that utilized the shelter. A few say they were given no warning of the evacuation. The fire moved so quickly they literally had to grab their pets and go.
Now they don’t know what to do. Do they risk going back home? Or do they just wait for firefighters to get everything under control?
It’s taking a toll on people. I talked to one retired police officer from Oakland, California. He’s seen a lot and he was in tears.
GN: What are conditions on the ground in towns like Brookings and Gold Beach?
KFV: Yesterday it was mostly clear and sunny, the wind was blowing all the smoke inland. But that can change very quickly.
There are lots of fire fighting vehicles and emergency personnel around. Gov. Kate Brown announced yesterday the mobilization of an additional 125 Oregon National Guard members.
So in total, more than 1,000 people are now working the Chetco Bar Fire.
On the positive side, locals are helping each other — especially on social media. Strangers are offering beds and places to say. There are even offers of land to house displaced pets and horses.
GN: What’s the prognosis over the next few days?
KFV: It looks like temperatures are going to be increasing Friday, Saturday and Sunday with the humidity dropping. Winds are also going to be 10 to 15 miles per hour. So that’s not great, but it could be worse.
Some families are being given permission to return home, at least for a short period of time. But they’re being told to not stay long, and they have to fill-in a reentry form and show proof of residency beforehand.