In early September, the Almeda Fire ignited at the edge of my hometown of Ashland, Oregon, and roared through the nearby towns of Talent and Phoenix, pushed by hot south winds.
Over 2,800 houses, mobile homes and apartment units were destroyed, representing much of the low-income housing in our increasingly expensive valley. Three people were killed. The story was repeated across Oregon this fire season, and at its peak almost a million acres burned across the state. Some 500,000 people were forced to flee or were under evacuation warnings.
These fires became so widespread because strong, dry winds sent flames racing to devour fuel wherever it could be found. And fuel could be found everywhere this year: in mountain forests parched from a winter of drought and a summer of record-breaking heat, in eastern Oregon’s sagebrush country, and yes, in mobile home parks and residential neighborhoods. Under these conditions, any fire seemed ready to explode into a major disaster.
As a member of the southern Oregon community, I felt stunned and heartbroken by the devastation these fires left behind. But, as a conservation biologist, I was not surprised. For many years, scientific modeling predicted a future of reduced snowpack, hotter summers and drastically increased fire danger in Oregon. The present we are now enduring is the climate-change future that we have been warned about for decades.
Tragically, a different kind of conflagration also smoldered in Oregon, one fanned by hatred and division.
Two weeks before the fires, my valley experienced an ugly racial confrontation. Like most of Oregon, the Rogue Valley is overwhelmingly white. Still, we have Black Lives Matter support groups, and one of them, the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, planned a community forum in the tiny town of Rogue River. The purpose of the event was to invite local residents of color “to share their experiences and educate the community on systemic racism.” It was to be followed by a family-friendly barbeque, to which everyone was invited.
Unfortunately, in the toxic atmosphere of social and racial division that is daily fanned by President Trump and right-wing media, this community event was seen as a threat by local “patriot” groups, which descended on the town heavily armed. For hours, these angry people screamed curses and threats at the small group of coalition supporters, while some tried to provoke physical confrontations. Coalition supporters, fortunately, had the discipline to remain calm while resisting.
Then, in the aftermath of the Rogue Valley fires, this social pathology flared again. Rumors began to fly on social media that the fires were deliberately set by “antifa,” which is not an organized group, feeding more fear and paranoia. These rumors tied up 911 lines and interfered with critical fire-response activities.
After forceful denials by local law enforcement, the antifa rumors died down, and the Rogue Valley seemed to unite in response to the tragic fires. A spontaneous brigade of bicycle riders ferried supplies to victims in the burn zone. Dozens of local organizations mobilized to offer shelter, food, water, clothing and emergency funds to displaced families.
But conspiracy theory-fueled paranoia is not so easily overcome. Its next target was a “tent city” that sprang up in a park in Medford, the valley’s largest town. Residents of the tent city included low-income people burned out of their homes and homeless people who formerly camped along Bear Creek, another area consumed by the fire.
In short order, a Medford City Council meeting was packed with outraged citizens, with some spouting ugly theories that many of the tent-dwellers had been “bused in from other towns with help from antifa,” according to the Medford Mail-Tribune. Some of the protesters threatened vigilante action to “take care of the problem.” A week after the city council meeting, Medford police dismantled the encampment and evicted the residents.
Who benefits from this trumped-up rage? Only those whose grip on power is served by fomenting fear and chaos. The future will challenge us all. Those who work to divide us are simply fanning the flames.
Our valley has plenty of divisions, but also incredible strength and generosity. Community spirit is shining through as we begin the hard work of recovery. The only way to survive wildfire, to survive COVID, to survive climate change, and to survive vigilante hatred, is to work together for the common good. Let us hope that this terrible year teaches us that lesson at last.
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.com, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a conservation biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.