April 21 2019
BROOKINGS, Oregon - It's been weeks since Maryjane Carlson has been able to relax.
The artist lives in Brookings, a small city along the southern Oregon coast that's threatened by one of the nation's largest wildfires. Carlson and her neighbors never know when the blaze is going to move closer to the wooded town.
"It's overwhelming," she said Wednesday. "It's kind of like living in a war zone."
Oregon Republican Congressman Greg Walden introduced a bill to Congress Friday to expedite salvage and reforestation projects in the Columbia River Gorge and other National Scenic Areas after catastrophic events like the Eagle Creek Fire. That blaze, which ignited Sept. 2, is now the nation's top priority wildfire and is burning more than 33,000 acres in the Gorge.
The bill would require the Forest Service to begin developing a cleanup and reforestation plan within 30 days after containment. It would give the Forest Service fast track authority to clean up and reforest priority areas such as municipal watersheds.
"What we're trying to do here is clear the bureaucratic decks so that the professionals can do their job and do it quicker," Walden said at a press conference Saturday.
"This can all be done following all the environmental laws, but we've gotta streamline the timelines — we have to get at work here as soon as the flames are out and the basic work is done."
The smoke, the flames, the aching lungs, the evacuations. They're summertime facts of life in the U.S. West, where every wildfire season competes with memories of previous destruction.
This year was supposed to be mild after an extremely wet winter and spring but has ended up one of the worst in U.S. history in land burned. The foliage that sprouted from previous rain and snow has gone bone-dry in intense heat, feeding flames in places that have not seen downpours in months and strangling cities with smoke.
The biggest fires came a little later than usual in some states, after Labor Day, when the fire season traditionally starts to peter out.
In addition to the fear of the flames, smoke never leaves. An asthmatic, Carlson had to buy an air purifier and sometimes covers her face with a mask.
Thousands of residents have evacuated as firefighters battle blazes statewide, including one devastating hiking trails and waterfalls in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.
Officials expect the fire near Brookings to burn for at least another month. The weather is a wild card in a region accustomed to rain and fog. If it's hot and dry, it will be a scary September.
"We don't know what the weather's going to do, and half the problem is that uncertainty," Carlson said.