Saturday, September 26, 2020
Sept. 26, 2020

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In Our View: Spread of wildfires, rumors add to our burdens

The Columbian

The eye-burning, throat-scratching haze that has settled over Clark County in recent days is a reminder of the need for caution in wilderness areas. Washington is burning, and people are largely the cause; the state Department of Natural Resources reports that more than 1,300 damaging fires have been started by humans in Washington this year.

Whether the fires were started by humans or natural forces such as lightning, Clark County is feeling the heat. The Big Hollow blaze near Yale Reservoir had burned more than 12,000 acres as of Friday, and officials had issued Level 1 and Level 2 evacuation notices for various nearby areas. A Level 1 evacuation notice means residents should “get ready” in the event of a mandatory evacuation; Level 2 indicates a significant risk in the area.

Similar scenarios have been in play throughout Washington, Oregon and California, and even urban areas far from the nearest fire have experienced the effects. Smoke-filled air has left an apocalyptic orange/red glow where clear sunshine typically is enjoyed. The possibility of mass evacuations has even led to a postponement of major construction on the Interstate 5 Bridge, which had been planned for months and would close the northbound lanes for nine days.

The change of plans is understandable. Last week, more than 330,000 acres burned in Washington over a 24-hour period — exceeding the damage of the entire 2019 wildfire season. “Because of the scale of these fires, our state’s resources are fully deployed,” said Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands. “We are holding nothing back. But that means we must take every possible precaution to prevent new fires from being started.”

Such prevention calls for responsible actions from all citizens. Outdoor activities should be limited, and no fire should be intentionally set. We also must be aware that even the largest blaze begins with a tiny spark — perhaps from a lawn mower or chain saw or hot engine driving over dry grass. Perhaps even from a discarded cigarette.

Franz said: “We simply cannot take any chances right now with wildfire potential so great. Recent hot weather has set the stage for fires to start easily and grow quickly.” For homeowners living in potential fire areas, the Department of Natural Resources offers a guide to prepare for the possibility of a nearby wildfire.

Meanwhile, the conflagrations have become an impetus for misinformation. Widespread online claims have suggested that adherents of the anti-fascist movement commonly called antifa have intentionally started fires.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Southern Oregon posted: “Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in Douglas County, Oregon. THIS IS NOT TRUE!” Law enforcement agencies in Washington also have been compelled to dispute unfounded rumors, and various investigations have found that negligence rather than nefarious actions have caused the fires.

Instead of spreading rumors, citizens should focus on preventing wildfires, being cognizant of the danger and providing assistance where possible. Check in on friends or relatives in affected areas and be aware of possible evacuation orders.

Arriving amid a coronavirus pandemic that already has upended daily lives, the wildfires and the smoke they generate pose simply another burden we will get through together.