A New Normal

Sep 1, 2018

During the past several weeks the JPR news department has been at work covering one of the most active and destructive fire seasons in Southern Oregon and Northern California history.  

During the coming weeks and months we'll explore the aftermath of a fire season that is changing life in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Our news team spent a number of intense days and nights covering the Carr Fire in Redding which killed eight people, destroyed over 1,000 homes and displaced tens of thousands of residents.  JPR has served the Redding community for decades and we have deep relationships in the community.  Our hearts go out to all those whose lives have been impacted by California’s sixth most destructive wildfire and to the people who will be working to rebuild their lives for years to come.

As the Carr Fire became a top national story, JPR worked collaboratively with NPR and our public radio colleagues at KQED, San Francisco and Capital Public Radio, Sacramento to cover the story from multiple vantage points.  Our reporters visited shelters where evacuees came together to help care for each other.  We told the story of pet owners who needed a different kind of shelter -- one where they could remain with their pets, keeping their families together through the trauma.  We documented the harrowing experiences of those who narrowly escaped as the fire spread faster and more unpredictably than firefighters expected.  We were there as the community honored the lives of first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice helping their neighbors.

As the Carr Fire destroyed homes in Redding, several fires broke out in Oregon in Josephine, Jackson and Douglas Counties, causing evacuations and filling the Rogue and inland valleys with thick smoke.  In Mendocino, the Mendocino Complex became California’s biggest fire ever. Unhealthy air quality in the ensuing weeks caused the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to cancel plays in its outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre and move some performances to indoor venues, the Britt Festival canceled concerts on the hill including the entire closing weekend performances of the Britt Orchestra and sections of the Rogue River were closed.

The 2018 wildfire season feels like a watershed moment.  Some are calling it a new normal.  Hotter, more severe wildfires are inundating Southern Oregon and Northern California, and the entire West, despite average or above average rainy seasons during the past two years.  Smoke so dense it’s hard to see the mountains on some days is shaking our psyche as we’re forced to stay indoors during a time of year we’re accustomed to enjoying the warm summer days and cool nights that are so central to the quality of life in our region.  An important component of our regional economy, revolving around summer tourism and outdoor recreational and cultural activities, is being threatened. 

During the coming weeks and months we’ll explore the aftermath of a fire season that is changing life in Southern Oregon and Northern California.  We’ll continue to work with NPR and our public radio colleagues to examine public policy issues that are vital elements of living with fire in the West:  Are wild lands and forests being managed effectively to reduce wildfire risk?  In an environment where fire is a natural part of a healthy ecosystem, what planning steps should be taken to minimize the loss of human life and property?  What is the role of thinning and prescribed burns in creating a healthy forest and reducing the intensity of destructive wildfires?  How will we pay the escalating cost to fight fires without impacting other essential government services?  How do we manage smoke and minimize its economic impact?  Will any of this matter if we don’t address the detrimental effects of climate change?  And, how do we develop climate change strategies if it is not recognized as a national priority? 

As we participate in addressing these questions, we’ll give voice to people in our region who are stakeholders in this issue -- scientists, lawmakers, biologists, ecologists, loggers, environmental groups, business leaders and citizens.  We’ll do our best to sort through the often competing “facts” and claims to provide a clearer understanding of the interrelated and sometimes complex issues that surround wildfires in the West.  And, as with every issue we cover, we’ll work to provide context, analysis and diverse perspectives that create constructive civic dialogue and engagement toward developing solutions to this challenging regional problem.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.