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Fire Looms Over Eugene’s Future

September 14th, 2022 by dk

First came the weather and wind warnings. Then came the news of closures on Hwy. 58 and around Waldo Lake. Even though these bits of information came over the mental transom exactly two years after the Holiday Farm wildfire, the Cedar Creek wildfire felt like an abstraction. No weather map has ever made me feel hot or cold.

Then came the orange sky, the campfire smell through every open window, and the soot covering the car. “Oh no,” my heart sank, “It’s happening again.” Even worse, it’s going to continue happening, and with greater frequency. We’re told that climate change has arrived, but we’re not polar bears losing our favorite icebergs. It’s affecting them, not us.

Yes, we have more 100-degree summer days. Air conditioning is moving from the luxury category to an everyday necessity. But it’s still been mostly an abstraction. An occasional inconvenience, not an immediate peril.

Then we hear about neighbors upriver who are without power for most of the weekend. The Walterville Fair was canceled. Residents are evacuated from Oakridge and Westfir. A friend’s neighbor in Cottage Grove thought he got a bee sting in his yard. It turned out to be a Cedar Creek ember, carried by the wind. It’s touching us now.

Southern Californians know about summer downslope winds. Santa Ana winds (named after the canyon east of Los Angeles) are especially dangerous during droughts. Native Americans refer to them as “devil winds” because of the havoc they wreak.

Until very recently, devil winds off the Cascades came only in winter. Mountain climbers and small craft pilots know to avoid the fierce turbulence they create, but they seldom posed danger to landlubbers.

That was then. This is now.

After the winds shifted on Sunday, I took a walk by the river. Others had the same idea. One of those was Terry McDonald, executive director for St. Vincent dePaul. He barely said hello to me before he asked, “When are you going to write about Eugene’s South Hills?” My quizzical look prompted his explanation. “They’re gonna burn up!”

Not today. Maybe not for a few years. But the trend lines point toward danger.

Terry McDonald sees things before mere mortals do. He believes the city of Eugene should formulate evacuation plans for residents in those hills before it’s too late. There are too few egress options that can be corridors to safety in a conflagration. “It’s the biggest challenge ahead for Eugene, and nothing’s being done about it,” McDonald told me.

Many homeowners are not incorporating defensible space around their homes. They aren’t pruning vegetation to reduce wildfire fuels. Too many dead-end streets offer only one way out. Some of these dangers are easier to address than others. We don’t know how much time we have, but it’s almost certainly less time than we thought.

The Holiday Farm Fire (2020) and the Cedar Creek Fire (2022) are warning us. A warming planet delivers consequences. The abstractions are becoming terrifyingly tangible for some of our rural neighbors to the east. That club won’t be an exclusive one for much longer.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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