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The West on Fire
Patrick Traecy has lived in his home for the past 17 years. "I'm 65. My life was finally mellowing out, I've been low income my whole life. This is bad," said Traecy with a tear rolling down his cheek. "We were on the roof watching the glow come closer and closer. While everyone was evacuating around 2:30, we stayed until 9:30, turning off our neighbors' gas lines, trying to fight it off until we finally called it quits." Traecy's son Patrick said that from 6 P.M. until 9 P.M. on September 9, it sounded like war, with gas lines and propane blowing up in the neighborhoods all around them. Photo by Nina Riggio

The West on Fire

When Peter Cockerell evacuated his home of 28 years, he took his handheld radio, flip phone, medication, and “meal drinks,” as he can’t chew food. “I’m going to be honest with you. I haven’t showered in months. I’m too scared to because if I fell, I’m not sure anyone would come for me,” Cockerell, who is 69 years old, said on August 27, 2020, as he rocked back and forth on his cot in a fire evacuation center. The center was set up to help those affected by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, which has now burned 86,509 acres and destroyed 1,490 buildings. “I’m disabled and do not have a car or really any family or friends, so the sheriff’s department came to give me a ride here.”

Cockrell is just one of 77,000 people who have been evacuated from the third-largest wildfire in California history. In Oregon, blazes advanced on towns so rapidly that even fire crews had to flee, and 500,000 people were evacuated across the state. The smoke from these historic western wildfires enveloped the whole continent, dimming the sun in cities 2,000 miles away.

The West on Fire

Photo by Nina Riggio

Federal spending on wildfire suppression has ballooned from roughly $450 million per year in the 1990s to a record-setting $3.1 billion in 2018. While suppression costs have increased, the budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, which is funded through the Interior and Agriculture Departments and produces research on the best practices for fire prevention and management, has fallen. The program started with a budget of $12.9 million in 2017; today that has been slashed by nearly half.

Meanwhile, global average temperatures are already 2°F more than they were in preindustrial times, a threshold often associated with the worst effects of climate change. Unless humans significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures are expected to keep rising. As NASA has shown, in its data on the interplay between fire, humans, and climate for the past two decades, that is going to mean a hotter, drier world, in which monster wildfires like those ravaging the West will be more common.

While federal funding is cut, and fire suppression measures are taken to the extreme, people like those photographed in this story are losing their homes, their livelihoods, their memories, and their loved ones.

The West on Fire

Cindy Wilkerson only had time to pack up her four children, her fire-proof safe with family memorabilia, birth certificates, and her two dogs when her husband called and told her to get out. “All we had time to do was take a breath of air.” For five days, she had no idea if her family home was still standing. Wilkerson returned to her trailer to see if it was still there on September 15, in Shady Cove. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

The sheriff’s department told Madelyn Barber, a resident of Phoenix, Oregon, to escape the Almeda Fire, which tore through her town on September 9. “All I had time to take was my purse, I left my screen door open for my cat, Noir, but I’m not sure where he is. I had to leave him.” Barber has lived alone for the past 40 years, since her husband passed away. She has Alzheimer’s and dementia. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Peter Cockerell said that every hour waiting in the Santa Cruz Evacuation Center in California was stressful. “I still don’t know the status of my house, which I’m pretty sure is destroyed,” he said. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Carol Kidder had been living in an apartment complex with 40 others when she noticed some commotion outside. “I live right in Phoenix, I don’t have a phone or a car. I saw the neighbors leaving, so I asked a cop what was going on. He told me everyone was evacuating because a fire was coming our way. I borrowed his phone and called my daughter, who dumped me here at the fairgrounds.” Kidder has problems with her hips, along with liver disease and diabetes. She was in a dress ripped from bottom to top and didn’t want to ask for help getting her medications, new clothes, or her insulin. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Teresa Schubert has been without a permanent home since losing her last house to a fire two years ago. “We saw the plumes of smoke and the glow coming. We were staying by the river, where it broke out originally.” She wants to find a job and start fresh. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

JD Anaker has been living with his mother and a roommate for the past 14 years in the same trailer park called Royal Oaks in Phoenix, Oregon. There were 145 mobile homes in his park, but now only seven remain. He has been at the evacuation center since the beginning of the crisis. His mother has been looking for a place for them to live for the past two weeks. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Hazel Martinez and Joel Gutierrez have been together for the past seven years. They are both orchard harvesters in Oregon and California. They arrived two weeks ago and were living in a friend’s mobile home, which completely burned down when the Almeda fire swept through Phoenix and Talent on September 9. “We didn’t know what was going on at all. No cops came by or nothing. We had no warning other than the neighbor’s kids started running,” said Gutierrez. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Carey Christian and boyfriend Denny Edmonds lost the mobile home in which Edmonds had been living for the past 10 years in Phoenix, Oregon. “I’m an ex-firefighter of 10 years, and I was in complete denial that the fire was going to hit us. By the time it did, I didn’t have time to get anything out,” said Edmonds. The two first met when they were 15 and 13 years old and recently reconnected on Facebook. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Kenzie (left) and her sister Katie (right) Christensen were working at the family cupcake business when their mom got the call about the fire. “Our mom had to run back home and blow through the cops to grab our little brother, who was home alone. She decided to stay back with our dad and try and fight off the fire with some of our neighbors.” Their parents saved most of their home—one of the only ones in their neighborhood—from the Almeda fire in Phoenix, Oregon. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Rick Cottle spent the past two years in his home in Phoenix, Oregon, before the Almeda fire tore through and burned it to the ground on September 9. “I was born and raised here around the Ashland area. This is devastating to our community. We didn’t have any warning, other than seeing tons of cars that had been diverted from the highway to our street. We had enough time to grab some photo albums, but that’s it.” Cottle doesn’t think they will rebuild but hasn’t decided yet. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Terry Gibson has been living with his 88-year-old father and caring for him for the past few years. “I’m not sure why they waited so long to tell us. We had just bought a bunch of food and gotten my dad’s medications. We only had time to grab the cat and dog. We probably lost $90,000 worth of tools in that fire. At least Dad had home insurance; a lot of these folks don’t.” His home was on the Talent-Medford border and has been completely leveled by the Almeda Fire. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

The West on Fire

Jose Telles’s and Maria Cortez’s mobile home of 25 years burned down in the Almeda Fire that hit Phoenix, Oregon, on September 9. “No one came to warn us. We had enough time to grab our son Kevin and run to the orchards. My boss called and told me to grab as many of my friends as I could to fight off the fire at the orchards. We fought it off with the sprinklers and buckets. Twenty cars, with three to five people in each car, is what it took to save the orchard.” Telles said that some of his undocumented friends lost thousands of dollars in cash, because most have a fear of institutions and ICE coming. Most undocumented workers are now homeless and sleeping under bridges and in the Walmart parking lot because of fear that if they seek help at the evacuation centers, they would be arrested. Photo by Nina Riggio

 

 

 

Nina Riggio is a visual journalist based in San Francisco, California, and Reno, Nevada. Follow her on Instagram @ninareeg.

Co-published with Sierra Magazine.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Nina Riggio is a visual journalist based in San Francisco, California, and Reno, Nevada. Follow her on Instagram @ninareeg.

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