Letter from Bend: No More Denial

The fires are still burning here in Oregon. There are eight confirmed dead with almost 5.000 structures lost. Whole towns were substantially destroyed (look up Detroit, Gates, Blue River, Phoenix, Talent). Forty-thousand people were evacuated.

This was not an ordinary year and although there was a terrible nexus of conditions that led to the fires being devastating, it’s clear that fires are getting bigger and burning hotter than ever before. Some of the big wigs are trying to tell us that it’s anything but climate change but they don’t have to actually fight fires. I want to know what scientists think. Then I want politicians to listen to the science and get to work.

The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) is currently monitoring 10 major fires. There are resources from all over the country, including many thousands of firefighters. According to the ODF news blog:

About 1 million acres have burned in Oregon since the start of this year, which is nearly double the 10-year average of approximately 557,811.



My husband is a forester and a fire fighter. Driving back home though the high country on August 16, we watched as a storm darkened the sky while the sizzle of lightning strikes hit around us. He packed his bag when we got home and has been back to visit only a few times since then. He is 60 miles away. That is the closest fire to me, so the most I endured is a terrible Air Quality Index (in the 500s) but I continue to fear for my husband, his coworkers, his community and this great state as the fires burn on. The recent rain made the difference for firefighters. The fires, where he is, are manageable as of right now.

Lionshead Fire and neighboring fire on North Butte four miles to the northeast days after lightning storm, Mt Jefferson in background. Photo by Vernon Wolf.

Lionshead Fire and neighboring fire on North Butte four miles to the northeast days after lightning storm, Mt Jefferson in background. Photo by Vernon Wolf.

As much as certain people want to talk about forest management as the only way to stop wildfires, know that these fires ripped through heavily managed areas and areas that had previously burned. The forest was tinder dry. Each ember found a welcome landing spot. Winds usually come out of the west and push fires east. On September 6, there were terrible Santa Ana-like winds that blew out of the east pushing the fires west. The winds took the fire up the crest of the Cascade Mountain range. (What could be a larger barrier than a mountain range with year-round snow?) The fires whipped up the mountain, and sparked fires down the other side. The fires went up and over the mountain. Flames blazed through the dry forest, pushed by ferocious gusts of wind, up to 70 miles per hour. That night, there wasn’t a way to fight the fire; the normal “anchor and flank” strategy became point protection of lives and homes. The fire travelled about 20 miles westward and covered an additional 88,000 thousand acres in one night.

“Rake” the forest all you like. Those that offer fake answers to why the west is on fire are not answering to our communities. They have a golden helicopter ride to safety whenever they need it. We have heard these kinds of lies before. Has the coal mining industry fully acknowledged black lung and stood up to fully compensate those that suffer from this debilitating affliction? No. When the cod fishery collapsed, who took responsibility?


My sense of “environmentalism” is colored by my growing up in the 1970s in Sydney’s North End, close to the steel plant and Muggah’s Creek and the seeping, black, PCB-soaked tar ponds that edged our neighborhood; the pervasive orange clouds that belched from the steel plant’s stacks and drifted where the harbor wind dictated. I never once questioned what made them that color.

Some days my buddies and I would walk a block to the corner of a neighbor’s property, slip through the tall grasses that grew there and onto chunks of sidewalk that had been haphazardly dumped. The reeds, taller than we were, grew through the cracks between the topsy-turvy flat pieces of cement, making strange little sanctuaries, like a small rooms, good for hiding away.

High elevation forest above Biddle Pass burned in 2014 and re-burned in 2020. Photo by Vernon Wolf.

High elevation forest above Biddle Pass burned in 2014 and re-burned in 2020. Photo by Vernon Wolf.

We would snap the reeds at their thick bases and use them as “fishing” rods, slopping the tuft at the end into the tar, sometimes pulling it back in and slapping it onto the pavement, making greasy prints with a satisfying splat. The smell could be overwhelming. Once our dog came back to the house covered in tar. Someone had likely thrown him in but he managed to keep his head out of the black, diesel-smelling water. His nine baths left a stubborn ring around our tub and we had to put newspapers down where he slept to absorb the tar.

The environmental movement hit the island in the mid 1970s with the “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” campaign that reached me at my desk at Sacred Heart Elementary. It made perfect sense to me. I never threw my root beer popsicle sticks on the ground walking home from Hughie D’s store. I ran after drifting chips bags tumbling down George Street. That campaign changed my idea of what was acceptable. I got the notion that throwing your fast food trash out your car window was a terrible choice. But the slag lapping at my door? My family, school and city didn’t consider that. It never came up as an environmental problem. I know that there were concerned citizens focusing their attention on the staggering contamination in the tar ponds but my mindset for a long time was that there was a price to pay for living, for industry, for jobs. Even as I grew up with the notion that you have to fight for workers’ rights, that fight was never an environmental one.


What made the clean up of the tar ponds possible? Science. Testing contaminated sites and marine life—and men and women fighting to have those results mean something to the golden helicopter crowd—made high cancer rates and polluted playgrounds no longer acceptable. The science led to a cultural acceptance that there was a problem and the demand that it be addressed. I am not saying it was easy. How many meetings did they have about the clean up? Over 1,000?

Chinook helicopter hovering over a dip site. Photo by Vernon Wolf.

Chinook helicopter hovering over a dip site. Photo by Vernon Wolf.

The noxious tar ponds problem in my backyard burned slowly over 100 years of degradation, destruction and denial. Our Oregon fires are ripping through our towns and forests here at a rapid rate. No more denial. The science is in. We don’t have time to let this play out. We can’t fight with environmentalists anymore and they must collaborate with communities. In my opinion, we need to work toward robust prescription burns, targeted salvage logging, thinning and management of fuels while we vote in representatives—pronto—who understand the stakes of climate change and take decisive action.

I will always be from Sydney’s North End and I am proud of it. I took the “Stand the Gaff” mentality with me but I have worried that I am too accepting of the way things are, still, as if enduring is just our lot in life. Meanwhile, devastating fires, warming climate, plastics in the ocean, bulging city and county dumps, the alarming disappearance of species and diminishing water resources threaten our lives like 100 years of PCB build-up in the tar ponds.

We are all in this together.

(And for the love of God, vote.)


Kirsteen Wolf


Kirsteen Wolf lives, works, writes, sings, thinks, gardens, cooks and messes around in Oregon.