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Oregon Residents Discuss Their Evacuation Amid Wildfires On The West Coast

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Gulf Coast is bracing for a hurricane. Sally is project to make landfall as a possible Category 2 late on Monday in the New Orleans area. Meanwhile, in the West, fires are raging across California, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. At least 33 people are dead, and dozens are missing.

We'll look at how climate change is accelerating these disasters in a moment. But first, Michael Palmer and Sue McAlister are both scientists who study plant ecology. This past June, they moved from Oklahoma to the idyllic community of Blue River, Ore. But now, just months into their retirement, the fires have forced them to evacuate from the home where they hoped to live out the next chapter of their lives. They join us from Eugene.

Welcome to the program.

SUE MCALISTER: Thank you.

MICHAEL PALMER: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we speak about the evacuation process, Sue, can you tell me a little bit more about this property?

MCALISTER: Yes. My family's had this property for several generations. My great-grandfather bought it in the early 1900s. And there are two houses on the property, one that he built and then one that was built later, where my - I grew up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it must have an enormous amount of sentimental value. I understand you built a laboratory as well to continue your projects.

MCALISTER: Yes. Yes. We had had microscopes set up so that we could study the plants and the insects on my husband's side to learn more about our property and just to observe how it changes with changing climate because - well, I hadn't lived there since I was in high school, and so I wanted to reacquaint myself with everything and learn it in more detail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael, what happened when the fires came closer? When did you realize that you were going to have to leave?

PALMER: Well, we had just gone to bed, but suddenly, our phones blared the level 3 warning, which is immediate; leave now; do not gather your belongings. So that was pretty, pretty shocking. We had some important documents packed up but almost nothing else. So we grabbed our three cats. And we thought, could this be in error? And I started looking around, and the fire had already jumped on our property. Basically, the embers were flying. Miles later during the escape, I noticed the tops of drought-stressed Douglas fir trees catching fire sometimes a mile away from the main fire front.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sue, I understand you went across the highway in the midst of all this to help your 90-year-old neighbor.

MCALISTER: Yes, 'cause I knew her cellphone wasn't working, so she wouldn't have gotten the alert. Yeah. So we drove out of our driveway, and then I stopped and unlocked her gate, unlocked her house and woke her up. The circle driveway in front of that - her house had already burned. There were embers and smoke coming out as I drove in around the house. You know, we grabbed her purse and herself. And as we were walking out, the trees were torching up as tall as - you know, they were a hundred-and-some feet tall, and they were torching - I mean, flying - flames everywhere. It was really scary.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can imagine. Michael, you and Sue are in Eugene now. Have you received any updates about your home?

PALMER: Yes. One of our neighbors made an escape a bit later, and he actually showed photographs, and there's nothing remaining except for a brick chimney.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sue, only the chimney remaining from a house that's been in your family for generations - what did you think when you saw that?

MCALISTER: I was just devastated - heartbroken. I mean, I think of all the hours of work that my great-grandfather, my father, my grandfather - hours and hours and hours of people's loving good care and all our family photos - all those memories, like my dad's paintings of us when we were children. You could just see his love for us in those, and they're gone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you're staying with your daughter now. I mean, what next for your future and the future of your community and the retirement that you planned for?

MCALISTER: Well, I mean, we, you know, have to go through all the processes of insurance and all that, but we definitely want to rebuild. That's where we want to live - is up there, you know, despite the now-known dangers. But it's - that's where my heart is. I want to live there. It's a beautiful place. And as far as us being scientists, too, it will be a fascinating process to watch everything regrow 'cause it will regrow.

PALMER: It was such a beautiful area, but it was also such a diverse area ecologically. And the type location right now is burnt to the ground. But insects eventually will come back. Plants will eventually come back. It'll be a very long haul, and I'm looking forward to studying them. In a few years, the fireweed will be in full bloom. The Oregon blackberry will be back. The trees, of course, will take much longer. We don't know if there's any surviving. But the river will be there. The wetlands will be there. And hopefully the beavers will come back. So yes, we'll rebuild. People are coming together. We do have to watch out because there are conspiracy theories abounding, so that's kind of unnerving.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the conspiracy theories?

PALMER: The main one is that antifa has been setting all the fires. And so I'm curious how much of this is active disinformation. We've got the intense rural-urban divide in which the urban areas are far left of center and the rural areas are far right of center. And so we have this - we're right in that border zone where we have some people of each - you know, of each leaning. And so we do hear an awful lot about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sue McAlister and Michael Palmer, who have recently evacuated their home in Blue River, Ore.

Thank you very much.

PALMER: Thank you, Lulu.

MCALISTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.