Relief from putrid, dangerous air spewing from massive wildfires across the West won’t come until later in the week or beyond, scientists and forecasters say, and the hazy and gunk-filled skies might stick around for even longer.
People in Oregon, Washington and parts of California were struggling under acrid yellowish-green smog — the worst, most unhealthy air on the planet according to some measurements. It seeped into homes and businesses, sneaked into cars through air conditioning vents and caused the closure of iconic locations such as Powell’s Books and the Oregon Zoo in Portland, the state’s biggest city.
“I don’t think that we should be outside, but at the same time, we’ve been cooped up in the house already for months so it’s kind of hard to dictate what’s good and what’s bad. I mean, we shouldn’t be outside period,” said Issa Ubidia-Luckett, a Portland resident.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has requested a Presidential Disaster Declaration for the ongoing wildfires in the state. Brown made the request Monday, saying it would bring much needed resources to Oregon’s response and recovery efforts. “Oregon is strong. Oregon is resilient. But to fight fires of this scale, we need all the help we can get,” Brown said in a news release.
While the foothills of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains have been ablaze, most of the churches in the Archdiocese of Portland have not burned and many have offered shelter to thousands of evacuees.
Ann Brophy, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Church in Medford, stood on her front porch the night of Sept. 8 and watched the small towns of Phoenix and Talent incinerate just a few miles south.
“It was terrifying,” said Brophy, who lives in an area where residents are to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
One Sacred Heart parishioner in Phoenix lost her mobile home to flames not long after gathering up photographs of her husband, who died two years ago. Brophy said she expects that many more parishioners will report being suddenly homeless.
Sacred Heart and other nearby parishes offered refuge for evacuees, filling their parish gyms and parking lots.
Father Bill Holtzinger, vicar of the southern Oregon region, has been in touch with local priests and said they were all fine as of Sept. 8 and no church properties had been damaged. The fire was near mission churches in Mill City and Lyons and a parish in Jordan, Our Lady of Lourdes. That church moved the Eucharist to a nearby parish.
Some of the few Masses available for Catholics in California’s Bay Area came to a halt the weekend of Aug. 22 as bishops urged parishioners to pray for one another, for firefighters, and to stay home as air quality diminished in some parts of the state because of some of the largest wildfires in California history.
“People are just stunned, with the pandemic and the downturn in the economy and the racial issues and then on top of that, the wildfires,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú, head of the Diocese of San Jose in an Aug. 24 interview with Catholic News Service. “It makes you wonder, what else? All we need is an earthquake.”
Even with all the chaos, people have stepped up to help others, he said. The diocese has given pastors information to share with their parishioners, connecting those who have lost their homes to resources available in the area and also issuing information about what to prepare ahead of time should they be evacuated “and to be ready to go at a moment’s notice,” Bishop Cantú said.
Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality extended an air quality alert to Thursday after it was to initially expire on Sept. 14. The air was so thick that on Sept. 14 Alaska Airlines announced it was suspending service to Portland and Spokane, Washington, until Sept. 15. Hazy, smoky skies fouled Washington state and experts said some parts of California might not see relief until next month.
Dylan Darling, a spokesman for the state’s department of Environmental Quality, said: “I grew up in Oregon and lived here a long time, and to see this much smoke for this long and wide spreading, really stands out in the state’s history.”
Some areas of central California blanketed by smoke are not likely to see relief until October, said Dan Borsum, the incident meteorologist for a fire in Northern California.
“It’s going to take a substantially strong weather pattern to move all the smoke,” Borsum told a fire briefing Sept. 13. He said smoke from dozens of wildfires in the West and throughout California is pooling in the Central Valley, which already has some of California’s worst air quality even when wildfires are not burning.
Joe Smith, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, which attends to homeless people, said California’s capital city hasn’t seen consistent blue skies in weeks. People experiencing homelessness have grappled with an unrelenting onslaught of virus, searing heat and now, polluted air they can’t escape.
“Some of the toughest folks you’ll ever meet are people who live outdoors, unhoused, but it is getting to them,” he said. “We’ve got COVID-19, followed by excessive heat wave, followed by smoke. What’s going to start falling out of the air next on these poor folks?”
— Catholic News Services contributed to this report.
USCCB president urges special collection to aid disaster-stricken dioceses
WASHINGTON — Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has asked his fellow bishops to consider having their parishes take up a special collection to aid dioceses and parishes stricken by recent natural disasters.
“The traditional storm season has only just begun and already we have witnessed the devastating impact of Hurricane Laura and the California wildfires,” the archbishop wrote in a letter to his fellow bishops. “Thousands of homes, businesses, and churches have been severely damaged or destroyed and the impacts will be long-lasting.”
Archbishop Gomez acknowledged the severity of the impact of COVID-19 on parish and diocesan activities and its challenging impact on fundraising, but he also expressed hope in the generosity of the faithful and their care for those in need.
“We offer our prayers to families who have lost loved ones, homes and businesses,” Archbishop Gomez said.
Funds collected will become part of the Bishops Emergency Disaster Fund and will be used to support the efforts of Catholic Charities USA and/or Catholic Relief Services, according to Archbishop Gomez. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will also be allotted some of the collections’ proceeds for pastoral and reconstruction needs of the Church.
Funds will be used in response to Hurricane Laura and any other disasters that occur and will be distributed where they are most needed, he said. However, if those needs become unnecessary, impractical or impossible to fill, the USCCB may use contributions for other emergency disaster relief where it is most needed as determined by the USCCB’s Committee on National Collections using its emergency response protocol.
Archbishop Gomez said Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, chairman of that committee, has been in touch with bishops in disaster-stricken areas “to learn about their situations and to offer our prayers and our desire to be of assistance in this time of need.”
Archbishop Etienne wrote in a commentary for Catholic News Service. “When we act as one Church with one mission, God multiplies our gifts to make many impacts. We have hope, as Scripture assures us ‘Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work’ (2 Corinthians 9:8). Please give generously, as you are able, and keep the work funded by the national collections in your prayers.”