'Fleeing cars melted as the sky turned orange' – a postcard from Oregon as fires ravage the state

A smoke-filled sky in Portland
A smoke-filled sky in Portland Credit: Getty

“Rosemary, how are you? Do you have a jump bag packed?” That was the text message I received from a neighbour in south-east Portland last Wednesday, as a 50-mile-wide megafire, potentially with its own weather system, loomed terrifyingly just half an hour down the road. Even more surreally, most people were in denial that the whole of Portland could plausibly burn down.

After several months of blue skies and hardly any rain, quite normal for summer here, unusually strong winds fanned dozens of fires caused by a variety of factors including lightning strikes, arson and pure carelessness over the Labour Day weekend, when thousands camped outdoors in tinder dry conditions amid the state’s 30 million acres of forest.

Just the day before that alarming text, I had been due to go camping with friends two hours to the south, just east of Idanha in the Willamette National Forest. “It’s our friend’s place near the river,” my friend had said in a breezy email last Monday. “Bring floating devices if you have, we just got a SUP. Detroit Lake and another swimming hole are nearby. We can have fires for cooking and we have a camp stove with one burner so if you have another one that would be great. There is also a charcoal BBQ and a store about five mins away.”

It wasn’t to be. There was already a huge blaze with the Lionshead fire, which had closed town the entire Mt Jefferson Wilderness to the east. Within 24 hours, the very road we were due to travel on, Highway 22, also known as the North Santiam Highway, was consumed in monstrous flames and shut down to anyone other than the emergency services or those fleeing for their life. One couple barely got out of their home in time to jump in the river: they were rescued hours later.

Fleeing cars melted as the sky turned orange. This was the Beachie Creek Fire, the cause of which is still unknown and under investigation. It may have started near the Opal Creek Wilderness, another wonderful hike I did on Independence Day. Tragically, not only could this gorgeous refuge for ancient forest have suffered extensive, senseless, unnatural damage, but Georges Atiyeh, a wonderful man of part native American, part Lebanese origin, who proudly told me about the history of the area and was instrumental in protecting it from loggers, went missing in the fire, his cabin home in the historic mining ghost town of Jawbone Flats destroyed.

Smoke covers Portland city Credit: getty

Still in Portland, the disaster was moving towards me. Horrible, dirty, dry winds buffeted the selection of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, oak, maple, cherry and walnut trees which fill the generous gardens on my street, as the skies darkened apocalyptically. I shut all windows and doused the garden front and back. My phone shrieked about an evacuation order in Oregon City, just 10 miles away, and one of my local shopping centres was turned into a receiving site for suddenly desperate refugees from their own state.

After a decade living in the Middle East, this was hardly the spot I expected the world to end. Quite the contrary, for there is usually nothing more sublime than an Oregon summer, where the purest blue skies and luminous green forests combine with lakes, mountains and waterfalls to create what car licence plates rightly call the Pacific Wonderland. Yet as fires erupted in the Mount Hood National Forest, another million-acre playground which starts just east of Portland, the Beachie Creek Fire merged with the huge Lionshead and Riverside fire on the nearby Clackamas River, creating a 500,000-acre “dynamic fire situation” far too close for comfort.

The sensationally beautiful Upper Clackamas River is my local swimming and rafting spot, yet that whole area, along with a host of campsites and hot springs, is presumed scorched. Even the coast was choked in smoke and far closer to home, local fire crews put out house fires and tackled morons setting off fireworks. Just five miles away, yet another blaze broke out on Elk Island in the Willamette River. 

As Oregon Governor Kate Brown gave ominous warnings to expect a “mass fatality incident” and fire crews were clearly not in control of the Clackamas fire complex, thick smoke poured into my street. When last Thursday the sun failed to rise and I could barely see the house across the street, I packed a few bags, loaded up the car and drove north to Seattle, not really knowing if I’d see my house again.

Fortunately the wind dropped, and having withdrawn from the front line, fire crews are now “re-engaging” with it. For a few days I stayed with friends in the Mt Baker area, conveniently located between two huge bodies of water and with both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates between me and any fires further to the east.

Mount Hood National Forest has fallen victim to the fires Credit: getty

With a “very unhealthy” AQI of 200 instead of a “hazardous” 500, it is still mind boggling to imagine how much smoke there must be to fill every inch of so much sky, and what could happen if the Clackamas complex pushed north. For now I’m grateful that unlike some, my house has so far seen only smoke and hoping, like the rest of the entire West Coast, for rain.