News & Events

16 December 2022

Melanie Brown, our 2022-23 Civic Science Fellow, on her new life in Oregon and the wildfires that beset local communities

Whilst California may be the place in the USA most people think of when hearing the words wildfire, lusher regions like Oregon in what’s called the ‘Pacific North West’ have been experiencing very intense fires the past few years. A fortnight after my arrival to Eugene, Oregon in September I woke up and was surprised to smell bonfire, surprised because it was another hot and dry day and I thought “well that’s a silly time to start burning stuff in the back yard, you could start a fire!”. It was only upon leaving my house that I realised the entire city and the surrounding countryside was blanketed in smoke from the Cedar Creek forest fire about an hour’s drive away which I’d heard about but hadn’t expected to feel the effects of it.  

The air was acrid and unpleasant to breathe and outdoor activities were off the cards. As I sat indoors on a beautiful sunny day making sure all the windows were shut tightly, it got me thinking about Oakridge the small city adjacent to the fire and what their residents must have been going through.  The fire had been burning for around 8 weeks at that point and was less than half of it was contained, so how were people managing their lives if they had to deal with this level of smoke everyday? Much media reporting of wildfires perhaps unsurprisingly focusses on the dramatic moments – we’ve all probably seen the images of an inferno of flames leaping off trees or houses - but what about those less dramatic moments? Could it be that some of the most pernicious effect of wildfires are the lesser seen ones?  

I found crowd sourced air pollution website ‘Purple Air’ and it was apparent Oakridge residents were experiencing a level of hazardous air so high it was actually off the measuring chart. I thought it would be interesting to go there and hear first-hand from people about how living nextdoor to a wildfire was impacting on their daily lives.   I drove slowly through what would normally be fog but was actually smoke to Oakridge. The streets were deserted when I arrived but I found a group of residents taking respite from the smoke in a local café which had an air filter. Every person I spoke to in the café had a story about how the smoke had negatively impacted on their health and wellbeing; from waking up in the night struggling to breathe to curtailing the coffee barrista’s favourite hobby of mushroom picking in the nearby forest.  

I met local the city administrator who talked about his worry for residents health and the challenges of trying to pivot your economy to outdoor leisure (like mountain biking) when the air is hazardous to breathe. Whilst he’s been able to secure air filters for most residents he was hitting snags in getting access to more emergency funding as wildfire smoke isn’t deemed to be an emergency despite it’s clear harm on peoples health.   

I then visited a local air-monitoring station that had recently had its capacity increased to produce a richer insight into the quantity and chemical makeup of smoke. Whilst there’s been a fair amount of research into fires, wildfire smoke less so, and it’s only now that more scientific attention is being focussed here. For example, did you know that as smoke ages it’s chemical composition changes? 

The day I visited the monitoring station, the PM 2.5 readings were very high and some of the filters had shut down because it was so smoky!  

Finally, I got taken around different parts of the Cedar Creek fire site by fire officers. It was a mosaic pattern of burning; some areas of the forest still green whilst others had been totally burnt to ashes leaving only ashen soil and black charred stumps. The ground was still smoking around me and the occasional tree top would randomly combust, helicopters danced in the distance. I was shown the huge range of resources being used to contain the fire from helicopters to incarcerated prison labourers. By the time of my visit it had cost $123m to tackle the fire and it still less than half contained. I also learnt about fire fighting methods and heard about the challenges of firefighting, especially in a warming climate which is making these fires more severe. I was struck by the huge scale of the fire and how the topography made tackling it very difficult. It is a dangerous dance between the firefighters and the fire as to where they draw their battle lines and a huge amount of planning and resources goes into it.  

Whilst I’ve done a lot of journalism for the BBC focussed on climate change, visiting the fire and this community was a chance for me to get a sense of the scale of the fires and hear first-hand about the experiences of people who are on the front lines of the climate crisis. It gave me an opportunity to tell a climate story from a personal human centred perspective that isn’t always easy to achieve sitting in a newsroom. The report was 13 minutes long and was broadcast on ‘Living Planet’ a climate focussed programme by Germany’s national broadcaster DW (Deutsche Welle).  

Meeting and speaking to people engaged firsthand in firefighting and forestry management has given me a richer understanding of the many complexities involved in wildfire prevention. Since the visit I have been able to develop more ideas for stories around wildfires that I hope to cover, things like how forests and gardens are replanted to build resilient ecosystems after fires, or the health of the firefighters as they go about this dangerous and physically demanding work.  

I’m grateful to my host institution for helping to facilitate this trip and lending me such excellent fire safety gear - though nobody warned me the bright yellow shirt would attract all the wasps! 

Melanie Brown is a Fulbright Scholar supported by the Rita Allen Foundation based at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Alongside teaching and research Melanie is reporting on local climate, environment and health issues. Her current journalism project on the Oregon wildfires and their aftermath has also been featured on German broadcaster DW’s channel which you can listen to here