Over the past several days, authorities have told some Lewis & Clark community members to be ready to evacuate due to nearby fires. While residents of Clackamas County were preparing to possibly evacuate, students on campus and in Multnomah County have been dealing with hazardous air quality.
In August, lightning struck some southern Oregon counties during a particularly dry and hot summer, resulting in several wildfires. By Aug. 28, many of these fires seemed to be under control with more than 30% containment. However, on Sept. 7, high winds over 30 miles per hour led to more wildfires and exacerbated existing fires.
Currently, there are over 28 wildfires in Oregon. Seventeen of them have burned 1,000 acres or more. Altogether, over 1 million acres have burned and over 40,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes in search of refuge. Over 50,000 more are in areas with evacuation warnings. Clackamas County, the county that borders LC to the south, has been in various levels of evacuation for the past week.
The presence of multiple fires has made conditions especially dangerous. The Beachie Creek fire near Detroit, Oregon, was originally burning just 469 acres. After the Sept. 7 windstorm, it grew to over 130,000 acres overnight. By Sept. 8, it had briefly merged with the Lionshead fire. Additionally, the 134,000-acre Riverside fire in Clackamas County has gotten within 30 miles of Portland.
Unlike many Oregon fires of the past, these events are directly impacting the LC community. A number of faculty and upperclassmen live in areas surrounding Portland that are under evacuation warnings. Assistant Professor of International Affairs Laura Vinson lives in the Milwaukee area and had been under a Level 1 evacuation notice. Still, smoke from the nearby fires has significantly impacted her home.
“The room where I teach in my home started getting more smoky on Thursday, and I couldn’t teach down there now,” Vinson said.
She is hopeful that by this next week, the smoke will clear out and the fires will die down. However, she is worried about whether she is making the right choice by not evacuating immediately.
Alys Chang ’22 lives in a flat in Lake Oswego. Chang has also been under a Level 1 evacuation warning since early September. Although she is from California, she never expected to deal with a wildfire at LC. At first, she began taking precautions, buying an air filter and filling up the gas in her car. However, when the fires threatening Clackamas County merged, Chang panicked.
“I have two suitcases right now with basic necessities just in case I get moved up to a Level 2,” she said.
Despite its close proximity to the areas impacted by the fires, LC has been following guidance from Multnomah County. For the past week, the county has maintained that residents need not worry about evacuation. According to a statement on the county website, the threat of wildfire is not increasing in Portland. In a campus-wide email sent last Thursday, Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Robin Holmes-Sullivan echoed that statement and assured students that LC would “continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Chang is not satisfied with that answer. She understands that between the COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires, administrators have a lot on their hands. However, she expects better from LC. She hopes the school will support students through these two crises.
“I’m curious to see what Lewis & Clark has in store for students that are directly affected by the fires, because there’s a possibility that I need to evacuate,” Chang said.
Air quality, not evacuation, has been the main concern of administrators. Last Thursday, a campus-wide email was sent out detailing LC’s response. Through at least Friday, Sept. 18, all on-campus activities and classes have been canceled or moved online and students are being instructed to stay inside. LC offered access to medical resources in the email for students who may have negative reactions to the smoke.
Annika Bateman ’22 lives in West Hall. As the fires began creeping closer to campus, Bateman and her roommates were on lockdown. Effluent testing had revealed a potential positive in her hall, and they were required to isolate until they had gotten a second round of saliva tests.
“This week was extremely stressful,” Bateman said.
Bateman and Chang also mentioned how difficult it is to be learning through these events.
“I have a headache and my chest feels bad,” Bateman said “It’s hard for me to be motivated and ready to learn.”
LC has maintained that students have little to worry about and that classes would resume online as long as air quality remains dangerous. On Monday, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier emphasized in a campus-wide email that “the mission of the College is to provide an education to students, even in challenging times, perhaps especially in challenging times.” According to administrators, LC will continue to operate for the time being, despite these extreme circumstances.