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Science & Environment

Smoke, Dense Fog Complicate Oregon Firefighting Efforts

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program on the West Coast, where unprecedented wildfires have blanketed much of the region in smoke. More than two dozen people from California to Washington state have died as a result of the fires. Dozens more remain missing. NPR's Nathan Rott is at the incident command center for one of the major fires east of Eugene, Ore., and he's with us now.

Nathan, thanks so much for being with us.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Yeah, happy to be here.

MARTIN: So describe what it's like there.

ROTT: Hazy. The air quality here is just, like, horrific. It's gotten better through the day, but this morning, you could barely make out the traffic signals on the roads until you were just about under them. Portland has the worst air quality of any major city in the world - just off-the-charts bad. And we were talking to evacuees from this nearby fire this morning at a hotel in Eugene, and they were saying that they had never seen anything like it. Here's Bart Scott, who was waiting to try and get back to his house.

BART SCOTT: You know, it's kind of a double-edged sword. While you, you know, would like some winds to clear it out, you don't want any wind to stoke those fires, so you've just got to kind of sit with it and be patient and, you know, let it run its course here, I think.

MARTIN: And I think, you know, we've all seen these eerie photos of the orange skies. Is the smoke worse today?

ROTT: So what's making it really bad here today is that it's actually a combination of smoke and fog. There was dew on our car this morning, and you could, you know, just feel the moisture in the air. It kind of smelled like a damp campfire. And that humidity, that fog, has been a really good thing for firefighters. It's made the fire conditions where we are a lot more moderate. You know, we're not seeing the same explosive growth that happened earlier this week.

But it too is a bit of a double-edged sword. You know, the visibility is so bad that fire officials say they were not able to use aircraft here. And they've had to limit their operations because it's just so hard to see.

MARTIN: But what do they say about how close they are to containing some of these large fires? Are they any closer?

ROTT: You know, to an extent. I know in far southern Oregon, where a couple of towns were, you know, entirely burnt through earlier this week, firefighters have been making progress. But higher winds are expected there again today or later this afternoon, which could potentially create dangerous conditions. The same is true in Northern California.

You know, I'm just seeing really a small piece of this elephant. You know, the scale of these fires is kind of hard to fathom. The fire I'm closest to has roughly a 200-mile perimeter. So, you know, stretch that out, and that's just shy of the distance between Washington, D.C., and New York. And that's just one fire in one state.

MARTIN: Yeah, I hear what you're saying. But we do hear about these kinds of fires in California, but this does seem unusual in Oregon. If that's true, like, why is that happening there?

ROTT: Well, you know, the fires in California are even unusual in their size right now. But, you know, yeah. These types of massive fires in this part of Oregon specifically is really unusual. Most big fires happen on the drier eastern part of the state. The west side of this Cascades, where we are now - it's typically a wetter place.

But, you know, this year across the West, we've seen record heat, major drought - all of the things that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades now. And so there's a lot of concern that this type of widespread extreme fire is going to be more common in a place like this in the future.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Nathan Rott east of Eugene, Ore.

Nathan, thanks so much for being with us.

ROTT: Yeah. Thanks for taking the time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.