When the Almeda Fire started in the southern Oregon community of Ashland on Sept. 8, it quickly grew and spread up the Highway 99 corridor. After devastating the small towns of Talent and Phoenix in the Rogue River Valley, it eventually reached the larger city of Medford. By the time it was contained on Sept. 15, more than 2,300 homes were destroyed, 80,000 people had been evacuated and 3,200 acres had burned. At least three people died in the fire.
Many similarly destructive fires raged up and down the West Coast this month. Although the causes of the inferno are complex, the role of climate change stands out. “Scientists have been projecting increased wildfire intensity due to climate change for years,” said Allie Rosenbluth of Rogue Climate, a grassroots organization whose office in Phoenix, Oregon burned to the ground. “This year’s fires are a result of conscious decisions made by polluting industries and politicians to push continued reliance of fossil fuels.”
Damaging as it was, Almeda was far from the largest recent blaze. According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, over 150,000 acres have burned in Oregon in 2020. More than three million acres burned in California so far. Other large fires have swept through parts of Washington, Idaho, Colorado and Utah. Across the United States, approximately a million more acres have been consumed by wildfires this year than the 10-year average.
In major West Coast urban areas thick clouds of smoke produced pollution levels normally associated with cities like Beijing and Delhi. On Sept. 14, Portland, Oregon registered the worst air quality anywhere in the world, reaching a particulate level of 516 on a pollution index that only goes up to 500. The fires provide a glimpse of life in a world altered by human-caused climate change.
However, even as communities begin picking themselves up after the devastation, West Coast climate activists are experimenting with what an effective response to such crises looks like. Some are fighting back against fossil fuel companies with a heightened sense of urgency. Others — especially in severely affected communities like Rogue Valley — quickly organized mutual aid for those displaced by the flames.
The politics of a climate crisis
“The day the Almeda Fire started was the windiest I’d ever seen in southern Oregon,” Rosenbluth said. “We were all on high alert,” due to a combination of high winds and abnormally hot, dry conditions. On Sept. 8, the worst happened: A fire sparked in north Ashland quickly grew and roared up Highway 99. While the Almeda Fire is being investigated as a possible case of arson (though there is no evidence it was politically motivated), those who blame this year’s blazes on human carelessness or malice miss the point. Were it not for extreme weather conditions like those in the Rogue Valley, recent fires like Almeda would never have achieved such size and destructiveness.
By mid-September, the region was blanketed in smoke. “The sky turned yellow,” said Seattle organizer Ivy Jaguzny of the youth-led climate activist group Zero Hour. “Even if you shut all the windows and doors, you could smell smoke from in the house. I couldn’t go outside for days.”
Zero Hour is channeling its energy into the upcoming election and getting out the youth vote. “We’re trying to connect the sense of urgency from the fires to actions people can take,” Jaguzny explained. “While our air is being polluted by smoke, the Trump administration is rolling back nearly 50 years of environmental regulations — and that’s in the middle of a respiratory pandemic. Now we’re dealing with terrible air quality, COVID-19 and industries getting the go ahead to pollute at unsafe levels.”
In response, Zero Hour is mobilizing young people around the election through its non-partisan #Vote4OurFuture project, run in partnership with the National Children’s Campaign. Zero Hour fellows are organizing on the ground in Pennsylvania and Michigan to turn out youth and marginalized groups at the polls.
Meanwhile, Sunrise Movement — the organization that helped popularize the idea of a Green New Deal — is also connecting the fires to grassroots organizing. On Sept. 12, with smoke-clouded skies in the background, a group of young people from Sunrise Movement Seattle unfurled a banner reading “Fight for the Air We Breathe” in the city’s iconic Gas Works Park. The image went viral on Instagram.
Sunrise Seattle recognizes the interconnectedness between climate change impacts, racial justice and other issues facing local communities. “We’ve done banner drops advocating for defunding police, as well as asking our elected officials to take action on climate change,” said Chloe Yeo, the hub’s outreach team leader. The fires — along with other recent crises like police shootings — have spurred more young people to get involved in politics.
“We’re seeing a massive surge in youth engagement right now,” said Seattle high school student Emma Coopersmith. She and other local high schoolers, most of whom are too young to cast ballots, are organizing virtual phone banks to get out the vote locally and in presidential swing states. “Our generation knows that just because the smoke is now mostly gone or because the latest act of police violence wasn’t caught on camera this time, doesn’t mean we can let up.”
Mobilizing mutual aid
When the Almeda Fire died down, communities in Rogue Valley assessed the damage. Along with thousands of homes and many businesses in downtown Talent and Phoenix, the office shared by Rogue Climate and the grassroots advocacy group Rogue Action Center was destroyed. “That office was a hub for organizing in our community,” Rosenbluth said. “It’s really sad to see it gone, but now the community is rallying to make sure we show up for the folks who need help most after the fire.”
The morning after the fire was put out, activists from diverse local environmental and social justice groups were on the phones discussing how to respond. “By that afternoon there were donation sites for supplies set up and people on the ground getting a sense of who had been affected, where they were and what kind of help was needed,” said Siskiyou Rising Tide member Holly Mills.
In addition to Rising Tide and Rogue Climate, the long list of organizations involved in relief efforts includes Rogue Action Center, Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, Beyond Toxics and the farmworker justice group UNETE. That such a large coalition could mobilize quickly was thanks to years of solidarity work between groups working on multiple issues. “From the beginning, Rising Tide has known our climate work needed to be part of local struggles led by people who are most affected by injustice,” Mills said.
Founded in 2015, Siskiyou Rising Tide’s top priority has long been stopping the Jordan Cove LNG export terminal on Coos Bay and its associated Pacific Connector fracked gas pipeline. Work on this campaign led the organization to partner with leaders from the nearby Klamath Tribes, who oppose the project because it threatens water and cultural sites in their traditional territory. More recently, Rising Tide activists began organizing alongside the local houseless community that is disproportionately affected by extreme weather.
“For years we’ve been building relationships with frontline communities and other climate and social justice organizations,” Mills said. “When the fires came through, all these groups were the same people who mobilized from day one to coordinate mutual aid.”
Of the thousands affected by Almeda and other fires, those hit hardest include low-income, predominantly Latinx neighborhoods in places like Talent, Phoenix and the houseless community. These marginalized groups were a major priority for mutual aid from the beginning. However, as larger organizations like the Red Cross moved in after the fire, local grassroots groups shifted their work to focus even more specifically on people who are often left out of mainstream aid efforts.
In Medford, the Bear Creek Greenway — where houseless community members pitch their tents — was destroyed by the fire. About 100 affected people moved the camp to Hawthorne Park, about five miles away and closer to the center of town. Local organizers began serving daily meals in the park, while other groups distributed supplies.
“A non-hierarchical camp sprang up, co-organized by houseless people living in the park out of necessity, and housed folks working with them in solidarity,” Mills said. “Some people stayed overnight. Others came during the day for supplies.” The decentralized organization of the encampment meant people could come and go as they pleased without the bureaucratic restrictions that prevent some from accessing official shelters and relief centers. But it soon attracted the ire of some Medford residents and law enforcement.
On Sept. 22, police began leveling the tents in Hawthorne Park after serving a 24-hour eviction notice. Eleven houseless individuals and mutual aid volunteers were arrested for refusing to leave. While such sweeps had been conducted in Medford’s Greenway before, the fire crisis has underscored how people displaced by extreme weather often find themselves with nowhere to go.
Despite such challenges, Rogue Valley’s mutual aid network hasn’t given up on working to assist those most affected by the fires. “We’re focused on people who don’t have access to things like homeowner’s insurance,” Mills said. “That tends to be Native, Latinx, BIPOC and houseless folks.”
Pushing for a just recovery
While local activists mobilize in places like Rogue Valley, climate organizers less directly affected by the fires have been working to get help to the frontlines. Revolution Coalition Network, a college student-led group that focuses on intersectional climate work, ran a successful fundraising drive earlier this month to purchase 600 bags of personal hygiene equipment to send to people displaced by the fires.
“We’re a small organization led by students in college, and there’s only so much we can do,” said Revolution Coalition Network’s Executive Director Lena Rodriguez, who is based in Las Vegas. “But we’re going to keep fundraising and continue sending even more supplies.”
Bianca Ballará and her partner, who live 45 minutes outside Medford, welcomed fire evacuees from Rogue Valley — as well as people from as far away as Oakland, California — to the 23-acre property where they live. Ballará hopes to transform the land, which has served as a rural refuge for lesbian women since the 1970s, into a center of community called Nativewomanshare, where Indigenous women will reclaim traditional land practices. “Being queer, Indigenous Latinx women ourselves, we wanted to create a space for displaced queer and BIPOC folks when the fires hit,” Ballará said.
Initially, seven evacuees stayed on the land as Ballará and her partner helped coordinate the distribution of food donated by local businesses to hundreds of evacuees and volunteer firefighters. Later, two more evacuee families joined them. All have recently found longer term living situations, but Ballará anticipates offering her home up again. “These fires happen every year now,” she said. “We plan to continue serving as a resource for the community, while returning to traditional land practices that retain water to help end years of drought.”
As rebuilding begins, activists are pushing for a just recovery. “Our number one priority is to ensure everyone who was displaced can come back to their communities,” Rosenbluth said. “In the Rogue Valley we’re already facing a severe housing shortage with less than 1 percent vacancy rates, and that’s been exacerbated by the Almeda Fire. If we don’t make a conscious decision to rebuild with low-income housing, people are going to be pushed out of our communities.”
Climate groups will also continue higher-level policy work that addresses the root causes of the fires. “We need state-level policy changes like an Oregon Green New Deal that includes a shift to sustainable forestry and clean energy technologies,” Ballará said. In the community networks that sprang up to coordinate relief from the fires — as well as other crises like COVID-19 and racial injustice — she sees hope for a long-term movement that can create such a future.
“We need people to continue awakening to the reality that it’s our Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people who are hit hardest by these types of disasters and need the most relief,” Ballará said. “That means supporting communities on the ground and organizers of color who are stepping up to lead.”
Teaser photo credit: By Tedder – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93989905