As the West Coast burns, communities unravel with each death

Thomas Fuller and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 14 2020 07:16 AM

Members of the National Guard cut a fire line on the West Zone Fire, part of the North Complex Fire, on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, near Feather Falls, Calif. At least 17 people have died in the fires, with dozens more missing and peak fire season only beginning in many parts of the West. Max Whittaker, The New York Times 

SAN FRANCISCO — They lived more than 500 miles from each other — one in the wooded foothills of the Sierra Nevada, northeast of California’s capital, Sacramento, the other in a thickly forested canyon east of Oregon’s capital, Salem.

Josiah Williams, 16.

Wyatt Tofte, 13.

They were young lives cut short, victims of the great western wildfires of 2020.

The arrival of fire season in the American West always brings fear of fatalities, especially among the elderly and infirm, unable to escape the flames.

But the deaths of Josiah and Wyatt, two athletic teenagers, speak to the speed and the ferocity of the fires that this year have burned a record number of acres, 4 million in California and Oregon combined.

With thick smoke blanketing large parts of Washington, Oregon and California and tens of thousands of people evacuated, the fires have been the worst in decades, exacerbated by climate change. By Saturday, fires in California had burned 26 times more territory than they had at the same time last year.

Across the West this weekend, law enforcement authorities were scouring incinerated communities for missing persons. An emergency management official in Oregon said Friday that the state was bracing for a “mass fatality incident.”

At least 20 people have died in the fires, with dozens more missing and peak fire season only beginning in many parts of the West.

Among those who have died was a 1-year-old boy, Uriel, killed when his parents became trapped by fire while visiting their property in Okanogan, Washington. They were rescued by the side of a river with serious burns after trying to escape with the baby in a truck. A 77-year-old woman died when flames overtook her home and her car in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Although fires in previous years have proved more deadly — a firestorm in 2018 that decimated the town of Paradise in California killed more than 80 people in a single night — the numbers obscure the trauma that each death brings to the small communities where wildfires have caused such terror.

The fires this year have mostly burned in less populated areas, keeping the death toll relatively low, although the fires in Oregon are inching near Portland’s suburbs. Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has worsened the fires, experts say.

In Scio, Oregon, the logging and farming town in the Willamette Valley where Wyatt Tofte went to middle school, a teacher and school administrator went door to door to Wyatt’s classmates Friday to check on them. The start of school, which will be held remotely, has been delayed by the fires.

In a community like Scio with a population of around 1,000 people and one blinking traffic signal, children grow up together and know one another well.

“Everybody is family in Scio,” Nancy Dickerman, a resident, said.

And the coronavirus pandemic has robbed fire-ravaged communities from being able to grieve as a group. When schools in Scio begin their fall term Sept. 18, students will be logging in from home.

“The realization will hit the kids when they have to physically go back to school, and he’s not there anymore,” said Margot Cooper, whose daughter was Wyatt’s classmate.

Wyatt loved football and video games, was exceedingly polite and did a great imitation of the alien dog character, Stitch, from the Disney movie, “Lilo and Stitch,” his friends said. He was surrounded by animals at home and was inseparable from Duke, his giant bull mastiff, said his classmates.

Berry Creek, on the edge of the Sierra Nevada, is a similarly tight-knit town. A community of about 1,200 people, it sits at the edge of the Plumas National Forest. Neighbors have grown up knowing one another’s families for years, sometimes decades. When the fires destroyed hundreds of homes, residents in the area jumped in to assist one another.

Josiah Williams, nicknamed “Jojo” by family and friends, was described as a caring teenager who was quick to smile. Josiah, who loved living in the mountains — and was fond of riding horses and playing video games — was a “great lovable sweet” son, his mother, Jessica Williams, said.

His aunt, Bobbie Zedaker, described him as “one of the kindest souls,” someone who could make the family laugh even in the toughest of times.

The fires that claimed Josiah and Wyatt both flared suddenly and unexpectedly.

The Bear Fire, which had been burning northeast of Sacramento at a moderate pace for days, exploded. Propelled by winds as strong as 45 mph, it burned 230,000 acres in the span of a night.

Most Berry Creek residents evacuated the town in a panic, a narrow country road the only route to safety. More than 100 people had to be rescued Tuesday evening.

Josiah was missing.

On social media, his mother, Jessica Williams, and community members pleaded for the public to help authorities find him.

“Please everyone my son is missing and not to be found so please dear God help my family and find my son,” Williams wrote on Facebook.

Josiah’s father and brother had left the area, but he seemed to have stayed behind and was last seen on Bean Creek Road near the town, his mother wrote. Josiah’s father had driven away from the home to check on family, and Josiah and his older brother had planned to leave the house in their separate cars, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times.

Josiah’s father said that he soon realized that his sons hadn’t made the evacuation, so he tried to return to the house only to find the roads were blocked. Josiah’s brother, Jason, was soon found. But Josiah was not.

On Thursday, the sheriff told family that they had found Josiah’s remains, confirmed by a DNA test.

“I’m so sorry son I wasn’t there to protect you,” Josiah’s mother said in a Facebook post. “I love you so much and miss you.”

In the evergreen forests southeast of Salem, the situation was equally chaotic.

On Monday evening, Kevin Cameron, a Marion County commissioner, awoke to the sounds of sirens in his neighborhood. The Beachie Creek Fire, which had been burning nearby since mid-August, swept down the canyon that runs along the Santiam River.

“That fire just blew up,” Cameron recounted in a briefing.

He grabbed what he could and drove his pickup truck through burning forests to safety.

“The fire on both sides was so hot I thought my car was going to melt,” he said.

The Tofte family lived in a home in the canyon, three generations on the same property. According to a devastating account in the Salem Statesman Journal, Wyatt’s mother fled the fire on foot, her clothes burned off. She is now in a Portland hospital with severe burns. Wyatt’s father led a desperate search for his son, a mission that would end with the discovery of Wyatt’s remains on the family property in the driver’s seat of a car. The remains of his grandmother, Peggy Mosso, 71, were also found in the vehicle, as were those of Duke, according to the Marion County Sheriff. Mosso had recently fallen and broken her leg; Wyatt, it appears, was trying to drive her to safety.

Word of their deaths spread through Scio, among Wyatt’s classmates and parents who remembered his smile and his unceasing thank yous.

“All the moms we’ve been talking,” Cooper said. “All of these kids are our kids,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s hard.”

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