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Steve and Diane Juul had just minutes to get out.
The couple, in their early 80s, were at home in Talent, Oregon, midmorning on a September day in 2020, when they heard sirens blaring and a voice on a loudspeaker telling them to evacuate.
“We grabbed a couple things, but we thought we’d be back the next day,” says Steve, a retired contractor and former AARP volunteer. They weren’t; their house was one of more than 2,000 consumed in the Almeda fire.
“We’ve been married 50-plus years, and everything we owned all that time is gone,” he says. For residents throughout the West, it’s an increasingly common experience as the climate warms and droughts persist. This year hundreds of destructive fires have occurred, from Washington to Texas. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 1.9 million acres have burned nationwide, well above the 10-year average.
“Within the last decade, almost every Western state has experienced their largest fire in historical records,” says Malcolm North, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist.
AARP has responded nationally and regionally, working with public and private partners to research preventive measures and help people prepare for fires.
After the Almeda fire, AARP Oregon commissioned a survey of 910 current and former Jackson County residents about age 45. It found that over two-thirds received no warning before the fire reached their community and that fewer than half of those affected had wildfire insurance.
STAYING PUT, DESPITE RISKS
But whatever the difficulties, only 4 percent had left the area.
“Most people want to remain in their own community,” says Bandana Shrestha, state director for AARP Oregon. Since the fire, AARP has continued to advocate for housing and services for the displaced.
The survey also revealed long- term physical and emotional effects. Some people had breathing problems from toxic smoke.
Many reported ongoing anxiety. For the Juuls, the months after the fire were numbing. Diane says she didn’t cry until a clerk at Trader Joe’s gave her a big evergreen spray at Christmas. Other businesses reached out as well, offering free haircuts, holiday family photos and meals.
The Juuls were insured and built a new home about 10 miles from Talent. Some friends rebuilt in the same place as the fire. “We didn’t want to stay there,” Steve says. “It’s desolate.”
Other parts of the West have experienced similar destruction. In April, Arizona saw 19,000 acres and 30 homes destroyed near Flagstaff, along with fires near Bisbee and Prescott. AARP Arizona has long supported community efforts to help residents prepare for and recover from wildfires.
After the devastating 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire in the east-central part of the state, local AARP members worked with authorities to establish the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, in Prescott.
“People come from all over every year to learn the latest firefighting techniques,” says Daiton Rutkowski, 78, an AARP volunteer and former Prescott mayor. The Forest Service recently developed a plan to reduce wildfire risk, including the use of more controlled burns. But implementation has been slowed by complicated logistics, dry and windy weather, and the need to battle ongoing blazes.
There’s also the threat of planned burns getting out of control. It’s a calculated risk.
“You’re going to get fire one way or the other,” says the Forest Service’s North. “It really comes down to what kind of fire you want to have.”
To keep safe, see AARP Montana’s advice at aarp.org/firetips.
Miriam Davidson is a writer living in Tuscon.
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