We had to decide what to take. But the real question was, “What do we really need?”
Evacuating our home was not something I had ever contemplated. Fires burned throughout Western Oregon, and several small towns served by Oregon’s electric cooperatives were incinerated, fanned by easterly winds during Labor Day weekend.
But we do not live in a rural logging community nestled in the Cascade Mountains. Our home is in a Portland suburb— a 20-minute drive from the contentious nightly protests that have divided the electorate.
Such is the Western fire season in 2020, where no place is truly safe. But at least we had advance notice, unlike many Oregonians in places near the McKenzie River or Santiam Canyon, who evacuated with only what they could carry—or in some cases, awoke to their homes on fire.
Throughout the course of that week, I marveled at—and assisted in any small way— Oregon electric cooperatives that were under siege from wildfires, giant swaths of their poles and wires destroyed by the blaze. The co-ops worked around the clock in brutal conditions, even though in some instances their directors and employees had also evacuated, often unsure if their own homes were standing.
But another stark reality in 2020 is that electric co-ops, which are best known for keeping the power on for their members, had to make the agonizing decision to shut it off to ensure additional fires did not start from trees falling into energized lines.
Even as the stories of heroism and tragedy emerged from the rubble, the threat to my family seemed distant. It was not until our home started to smell like a campfire—the air quality in the Portland area carrying the dubious distinction of being the worst in the world—did I grasp what my wife was telling me all week. A wildfire was precariously close.
We surveyed the house.
“Take our photo albums,” my wife said.
But I had no idea where they were. We loaded up our two kids and took what we could, but what did we really need? Each other, we decided, as we drove away to a destination unknown. The only thing murkier than the view from my windshield was the future of a state ravaged by wildfires and cleaved by protests, in a year like no other.