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Americans who lost homes to devastating wildfires brace for an even worse season

In the middle of an unprecedented heat wave and a worsening drought, western U.S. states are bracing for what could be an even harsher wildfire season than last year's — potentially the worst on record. With many residents still picking up the pieces, they now worry about what's on the horizon. Stephanie Sy reports from southern Oregon.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the middle of an unprecedented heat wave and a worsening drought, Western states in the U.S. are bracing for what could be an even harsher wildfire season than last year's, the worst on record.

    With many residents still picking up the pieces, they worry about what's on the horizon.

    Stephanie Sy has this report from Southern Oregon.

  • Bob Horton:

    You can see where this area burned over here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    These are the charred remains of a section of the Bear Creek Greenway that burned early in the fire season, too early. It's bone-dry along the 20-mile trail that runs through Jackson County in Southern Oregon. Just a spark in this tinderbox could become another disaster, like it did last summer.

  • Bob Horton:

    There's vegetative fuels like this all along the Greenway, and the fire was just moving rapidly.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Bob Horton was the chief of Jackson County's Fire District 3 when the Almeda Fire erupted last September, consuming the towns of Phoenix and Talent and leveling some 2,800 structures.

  • Bob Horton:

    I remember vividly, like it was yesterday, coming across the radio say we have one chance, one chance to stop this fire.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Will Clelland, his battalion chief, says the first priority was saving lives.

  • Will Clelland:

    The fire that day was forcing us to decide about neighborhoods, not homes or streets, blocks of streets.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Like which neighborhoods you would just have to let burn?

  • Will Clelland:

    Yes, we were forced to decide which neighborhoods we would, we would be passing by. And that's hard. These are real families.

  • Beatriz Gomez:

    I feel that was my last day.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Beatriz Gomez remembers the fire drawing closer the ash, the smoke. She grabbed important papers and packed her kids into a van to flee, but soon found herself on a packed road surrounded on all sides by fires.

  • Beatriz Gomez:

    My brother called me. He said: "Where are you?"

    I said: "I'm stuck." And he told me…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You said, "I'm stuck"?

  • Beatriz Gomez:

    I'm stuck in the fire. My 5-year-old told everybody, close the eyes, because this is bad and everybody's scared.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They survived, but lost their house. She, her husband and their four kids have been living in this cramped R.V., which they were able to buy with their own money and a church donation.

    These R.V. parks are scattered throughout the area, filled with displaced fire survivors, many still traumatized by that day in September, which happened to also be Beatriz's birthday.

    Are you still scared of wildfires?

  • Beatriz Gomez:

    Oh, yes, every day, especially last week. We have a small fire close to here. I see the smoke and I'm looking every five or 10 minutes. When I start to feel the smell, I start to…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Get anxious, yes.

  • Beatriz Gomez:

    And I said, what did I do?

  • So, I put my paper again in the van again. I have to run again. My 5-year-old daughter told me:

    "Hey, mom, the smoke, maybe it's carne asada. You don't have to worry."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Beatriz Gomez:

    After the fire, I put my kids for therapy, because everybody, my older son scream in the night, my daughter too. And I heard her cry in the sleep.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The kids attend schools in the Phoenix-Talent district where Tiffanie Lambert and Lucy Brossard work. The Almeda Fire arrived on the first day of school last year.

  • Lucy Brossard:

    I looked back and I saw the big plume of smoke, and that is when panic set in, and just hearing where the fire was and knowing that it was getting really close to some of our family's homes and it was some of our most at-risk families broke my heart.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The fire left one-third of students in Phoenix-Talent schools suddenly homeless.

  • Tiffanie Lambert:

    I mean, our areas are just reaching the end of the cleanup phase.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, when you are looking at the school year starting in the fall, you're still going to have a big percentage of students that are displaced and not in permanent housing.

  • Tiffanie Lambert:

    Correct. Mm-hmm.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Officials estimate more than 400 families are still displaced, among them, Allan Shephard's grandkids. With school out for the summer, they cooled off in a kiddie pool hastily purchased on a day when temperatures broke all-time highs in Southern Oregon.

    Like Beatriz Gomez, he says he had had almost no warning to evacuate, and could hardly save anything.

    What was most valuable to you that you lost?

  • Alan Shepard:

    My whole home. And it hurts. But what can you do?

    You got to stick your chin up and keep going on, try to make it right for these guys.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He can't afford to rebuild or even rent.

  • Alan Shepard:

    I got four kids. Even to get into a three-bedroom, I'm sure I'm going to be up around $1,200, $1,300 a month. And, for me, that's not feasible.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes.

  • Alan Shepard:

    So, that's what I'm saying, I might have to go off grid again and save enough money to buy a mobile home, and then move it in a park. That, I can afford.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The hard-hit town of Talent still bears the scars of that September day.

  • Dominick DellaSala:

    Everything on one side of Talent Avenue completely annihilated.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dominick DellaSala is a longtime Talent resident. He has spent years studying climate change and warning of its impact on wildfires.

    DellaSala had to evacuate along with all his neighbors. He feels lucky his home survived. But when he surveys the new construction in Talent, he sees how quickly it could all go up in flames again.

  • Dominick DellaSala:

    Part of me looks at this and says, we're not building better. I mean, this used to be a forest.

    And instead of being it — out in the forest, it's in these buildings, and it's totally flammable. So if, there's another fire in here some point in the future — and we have seen these Western towns burn not once, but twice — this is the worst possible way to build a house.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A new wildfire season is under way, which threatens to be worse than last year's.

  • Bob Horton:

    All of the forecasts have been well above the level of danger or risk that we would have at this time of the year.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Fire Chief Bob Horton says they have learned from the Almeda Fire and other explosive wildfires happening across the West.

  • Bob Horton:

    We're getting greater fires of greater intensity and greater frequency of fire. We absolutely have to be more aggressive at managing the risk and just — just more effort and energy put into hardening homes in the wildland-urban interface, and it's reducing the hazardous vegetation around people's properties.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dominick DellaSala says the fires are part of runaway climate chaos and, without action to address that, future generations face more losses.

  • Dominick DellaSala:

    This community has struggled with a lot of grief. It's rebuilding itself. But in terms of the bigger picture, this is all connected.

    When we change our atmosphere, when we destroy our wild areas, we alter the climate. So, we're seeing fire misbehaving, causing catastrophic urban fire events.

  • Will Clelland:

    If we try to attack this problem like we always have, assuming that it's the same problem, we will not find success. And if the environment we're operating in changes, and it obviously has, then we have to change, too.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And change quickly, before the next fire becomes a catastrophe.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Southern Oregon.

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