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"I just went through hell." Former students describe horrors of wildfires in the west

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In early September, former Andover Central Class of 2014 graduate and Portland, OR resident Hannah Johnson wore an N95 mask all day, even while at home and alone, for over a week. 

Not because of the Coronavirus.

Because of wildfires.

Throughout August and early September, much of the western United States descended into a scene that looked more like an apocalypse than the typical scenic mountains, sandy beaches, and sprawling forests that attract so many visitors from across the country each year, especially during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“The smoke from wildfires across Oregon completely covered Portland for over 10 days,” Johnson said.

Nearly 8,000 fires occurred in California during the summer, with many still ongoing. Over 3.5 million acres burned, killing at least 25 people, injuring dozens more, and destroying over 6,000 buildings with an estimated cost impact of over $1 billion.

These fires combined will go down as the worst wildfire season in the history of California, with nearly four percent of the land in the state on fire at the peak. The mass amounts of smoke across the west were devastating for the health of many.

“I had horrible physical symptoms from the smoke,” Johnson said. “A sore throat, nausea, a migraine. I started wearing a hospital N95 mask inside while working from home which helped a little bit. Many of my coworkers had to evacuate, and before the smoke cleared I was putting together an evacuation plan myself.” 

Another Andover Central graduate and Portland resident, Helen Mariam Soultanian, experienced the worst of the wildfires.

“It caused me a lot of anxiety knowing that I couldn’t leave my house to go on a walk and spend time outdoors, one of the only things keeping me grounded during the pandemic,” Miriam Soultanian said. “I definitely learned to not take fresh, clean air for granted which feels like a crazy thing to say but this is the reality of being alive during major ecological collapse.”

With many of the fires still not contained, the California Fire Protection Agency continues to work overtime, risking their lives to control the burning and prevent further loss of life.

Many heroic rescues prevented hundreds of deaths, including a California National Guard mission in which seven Army soldiers in two separate helicopters rescued a total of 242 campers who were trapped and surrounded by the blaze. The soldiers continued the mission even after being told it was unsafe, and they all earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for their bravery. As the west coast begins to recover from the worst of the fires, scientists and activists are examining the ways climate change increases the severity of the wildfire season.

“We need to stop focusing on people using straws and start focusing on the 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions. They need to be regulated like yesterday,” Mariam Soultanian said. “As long as we live in our society as it is structured now, we are in danger of dying from ecological collapse. This burden, like many others, has been placed on our generation to fix.”

Scientists argue that man-made climate change causes droughts and increases temperatures, making wildfires more severe.

“Were the heat wave and the lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Absolutely yes. Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes,” University of California Atmospheric Science researcher David Romps told MIT.

Although conditions have since improved due to some rain in parts of the west and a jetstream carrying the smoke higher than before, the horrific reality of an intense fire season caused many to fear what may come next year.

“I’m thankful that the Pacific Northwest rain came through and improved our conditions,” Johnson said. “But I’m fully prepared for this to happen again in upcoming years.”

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