Looking Back On Oregon’s 2020 Wildfires

ACA’s students tell stories of red skies and bad news.

Tazwell Brandabur

The Charter Features


After a comparatively quiet summer, the West Coast quite literally went up in smoke. The resultant evacuation orders displaced many of ACA’s students and staff members, delaying the start of the distanced learning school year. Those not forced to evacuate from the 17 large fires in Oregon were blanketed in a thick carpet of toxic smoke. The Charter reached out to ACA students to discuss their experience with the fires. 

Above: Mount Hood, Oregon, September 9th. Image courtesy Madalena Larkins.

South Canby resident and ACA junior Haladar Wright said his family received a phase 1 evacuation warning on September 8th. “The sky was orange, and the smoke was mildly difficult to breathe, but nothing too bad,” Wright noted:

“The next day, the sky was red, and it never lightened up. It appeared to be nighttime even around 9:00 [AM– pictured below].”

“I went to work in Canby, but my mom came and picked me up around 2:30 because the air quality was too poor for her.”

Near Canby, Oregon, September 9th. Image Courtesy Haladar Wright.

Wright continued, “We live in a small valley by the Molalla river, so we think that the smoke was just settling there and making it very difficult to breathe. We [had] our rabbit in his cage in the back of the car, and stayed last night [the 9th] at a hotel in Lake Oswego.”

Madalena Larkins, an ACA sophomore, said her family lost power on September 7th due to the initial high wind event. The power cut also suspended running water– Larkins noted the pump that conveys well-water to her house is electrically powered.

Larkins said: “The fires and evacuation zones were growing quickly on [September 9th], and caught us off guard, we weren’t very prepared to evacuate our nearly 70 animals.” She noted that the local fairgrounds are normally a good place to store livestock, but these filled up quickly due to the sheer scale of the evacuations. 

Mount Hood, Oregon, September 10th. Livestock awaiting evacuation– Image courtesy Madalena Larkins.

“Thankfully,” said Larkins, “a lot of people offered to help, and thirty or more did… Six of our cows and our 15 sheep went to a friend’s friend’s house… one of our neighbor’s friend’s took our horse, and then had to evacuate, and evacuated our horse with hers, our goat went to a different friend of the neighbor’s, two milk cows and our chickens went to my grandparents house.” 

The evacuation notice in her area, Larkins noted, has since lifted, and her family and animals have returned home.

Mount Hood, Oregon. September 10th. Courtesy Madalena Larkins. 

Though many urban areas didn’t deal directly with the larger blazes, the smoke reached everyone– air quality diminished as far as New York and Washington D.C., according to the BBC. “You’d think I have nothing to worry about,” noted Grace Penn, a South East Portland resident and ACA junior.

Penn passed along photos taken by her brother at Corban University in Salem, Oregon, where the smoke levels set world records.

The campus, Penn noted, “looked like Mars.”

Corban University, Oregon. September 10th. Image courtesy Grace Penn.


Corban University. September 10th. Image courtesy Grace Penn.

The structures consumed by the flames, numbering almost 1000 in Oregon alone, (New York Times) added a slew of toxic chemicals to the smoke, which experts at the CDC believe could have long-term health consequences for those exposed. 

Near Gladstone, Oregon. September 11th. Image courtesy Cheyenna Hall.
Near Salem, Oregon. Anonymous submission. 

Hundreds of downed powerline spot fires triggered by the initial high wind event peppered Portland and other urban centers, cutting power to over 100,000 people in Portland alone over the first few days of high wind. (KATU and Oregon Live)

Cheyenna Hall, ACA junior, noted that a warehouse caught fire a few blocks from her home in Gladstone. Sarah Head, ES, reported an explosion down her street, and the author spent a night outside his South East Portland residence monitoring an energetically sparking tree branch which fell across the main neighborhood lines, and occasionally until well after 2 am. 

Southeast Portland. September 8th. Outside the authors’ property. 


Bloch, Reinhard, Tompkins, Pietsch, and Del Rio. “Fire Map. California, Oregon, and Washington.” The New York Times. 1 Oct. 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/fires-map-tracker.html. Accessed 3 Oct. 2020. 

Bloemer, Seanna. “Weekly Update.” Received by Michael Lancaster, 20 Sept. 2020.

Hall, Cheyenna. “Re: FIRE.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur, 12 Sept. 2020. 

Larkins, Madalena. Messages to Tazwell Brandabur. Google Hangouts. 10 Sept. 2020.

Larkins, Madalena. “Re: Your experience with the September fires.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur. 6 Oct. 2020. 

Lute, Chloe. “Re: FIRE.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur, 14 Sept. 2020.

Penn, Gracelyn. “Re: FIRE.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur, 10 Sept. 2020.

“Power outages affect more than 100,000 customers in Portland.” KATU. 8 Sept. 2020. https://katu.com/news/local/power-outages-affect-more-than-60000-customers-in-portland-metro. Accessed 2 Oct. 2020.

Ross, Erin. “Hazardous smoke blankets western Oregon, with potentially deadly consequences.” Oregon Public Broadcasting. 10 Sept. 2020. https://www.opb.org/article/2020/09/10/hazardous-smoke-blankets-western-oregon-with-potentially-deadly-consequences/. Accessed 1 Oct. 2020. 

Singh, Maanvi. “’Nobody gets out without damage’: what fighting fire does to the body.” The Guardian. 10 Nov. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/10/firefighter-health-risks-california-wildfires. Accessed 29 Sept. 2020. 

“US West Coast fires: Smoke spreads to New York and Washington.” BBC World News. 16 Sept. 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54173615. Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

“Wildfire Smoke.” United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 Dec. 2013. https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/smoke.html. Accessed 1 Oct. 2020. 

Williams, Kale. “Tens of thousands without power after winds knock out service in Portland and beyond.” Oregon Live. 8 Sept. 2020. https://www.oregonlive.com/portland/2020/09/tens-of-thousands-without-power-after-winds-knock-out-service-in-portland-and-beyond.html. Accessed 10 Sept. 2020.

Wright, Haladar. “Re: FIRE.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur, 10 Sept. 2020.