WEST COAST WILDFIRES: This is the first of a 3-part report highlighting the wildfire devastation in the Salem, OR, area. You can read the full blog here.
As the seasons shift from summer to fall and further into winter, darkness noticeably lingers longer each morning. This natural transition is a reminder of the cold days to come.
But for many on the west coast, this unexpected darkness was caused by a startling reality: wildfires swept Oregaon early September, causing devastation for thousands of people and an eerie hue that lingered for a week.
“On the first day of the fires, I accidentally slept in until 8am,” said Kaileigh Westermann, speaking about the early September wildfires in Oregon. “When I woke up, it was still dark outside as if it was 5 a.m. For a whole week, the house was completely dark and when you looked outside, it was like there was a sepia toned filter on everywhere. It was dark at 3:30pm and ash was visibly falling from the skies like snowflakes.”
More than 920,000 acres have burned as of Oct. 9, 2020, according to the State of Oregon Fires and Hotspots dashboard. Salem, OR, is the second most populated city in the state (after Portland) with a population of about 180,000 people, and of those living below the poverty line, Kaileigh said. The local area that burned was historically timber-based and much of it had been turned into recreational spaces; the fires ruined more than a dozen parks and campgrounds.
These areas were also home to many very low income people, she said, many without homeowners' insurance or renters' insurance. The county already struggled with a housing shortage before this incident, which destroyed more than 700 homes.
Kaileigh runs the Salem Cloth Project, a nonprofit that sells reusable cloth items in order to raise funds to purchase cloth diapers for people in need in the community. The mission is both to help the low income families in the area as well as reduce the negative environmental burden of disposable diapers. Salem Cloth Project is one of Jake’s Diapers Diaper Drop partners.
“The impact has been enormous,” Kaileigh said. “We lost over 1,000 structures in our county. We lost entire towns. We've lost at least 5 lives, including one of a 13 year-old boy. At one point, there were over half a million people in the state of Oregon evacuated from their homes (the population of Oregon is only about 4 million).
“Even now, weeks later, we have over 700 people in our county still displaced. The fire became a threat to life and property so quickly that many people are traumatized. On the evening of Labor Day, people went to bed under no sort of evacuation orders whatsoever and were awoken in the middle of the night being told that they needed to leave immediately. These areas were fairly remote and attracted people that enjoyed that kind of lifestyle. These people will likely have to relocate to the city, at least temporarily, and therefore suffer emotional hardship as well as financial hardship. As we have seen with other natural disasters, this will likely result in trauma for all of those involved, both directly and indirectly.”