Families Flee Historic Wildfires in the West: 'It's Like the End of the World'

"Most people can't get back to their houses, so they don't know if they are standing or not," Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron says of his Oregon community

“With COVID, politics, the protests, the riots and now this, realizing everything is gone in the fire, and smoke everywhere, it just seems like the end of the world,” Kayla Carter, 29, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

The two Carter family homes burned to the ground on Aug. 20 in the aftermath of a rare, spectacular dry thunderstorm on Aug. 16 that ignited fires throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Historic fires are burning in California, Oregon and Washington.

While urban and suburban areas were largely spared, the rural areas went up in flames. But almost everywhere, residents were trapped in an eerie orange world caused by the immense smoke making air quality one of the worst on the planet.

“It was so distracting, like nuclear winter Wednesday, and light was having trouble existing in this world,” says San Francisco resident Chad Jones. “It was like something important was happening and you had to pay attention.”

Fires in the Western states hit hard and fast.

Kayla’s father-in-law Fred Carter built his country home in the hills above the town of Livermore 25 years ago. Fred's daughter Crystal, her husband Roger and their 8-year-old daughter Riley had a home on the property, and his son Andrew, daughter-in-law Kayla and their young son lived in his home.

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Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/AP

“People up there are living off the grid. We used solar power and generators for back up and we ran everything from hot water to the oven through the propane tank out front,” says Carter. “That’s how everyone is set up. People are spread out, I’d say our closest neighbor is about a quarter-mile down the road.”

While those in town safely watched the red flames of the fire in the hills, those living in the secluded area were fleeing.

“There is almost no cell service in the area,” Carter says, “and Wi-Fi is spotty. Most depend on landlines that went out during the fire, making it difficult to tell people living down the dirt roads, in the canyons and on the hillsides that they needed to evacuate.”

Carter says the fire started about two miles up the road, but there was no evacuation order.

“That night we could see the glow and were worried about it getting closer, so we tried to pack up the most important things we could grab,” Carter says. “Then we got the notification that the fire was on the other side of us and we had to leave ASAP.”

The fire ripped through the rural area and, as Carter describes it, “everything turned to dust.”

Near Eugene, Oregon, Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron had something in common with the people he visited at the evacuation center at the local fairgrounds — they all had escaped but did not know if they would have homes when they returned.

“I had to manage a crisis and then help manage a crisis,” Cameron says.

Cameron lives in Detroit, a town of about 200 residents but with thousands of summer homes.

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron amid the destruction in Santiam Canyon near Detroit, Oregon, on Sept. 9.
Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron (right) amid the destruction in Santiam Canyon near Detroit, Oregon, on Sept. 9. Marion County Sheriff’s Office/Courtesy Marion County, Oregon

“We are used to fires, but not like fires in California, because we don’t have that population density,” Cameron says. “It’s like second-home communities.”

Cameron was celebrating Labor Day with family when he received notice to prepare for a level 2 evacuation at about noon Tuesday. That changed dramatically as the winds began whipping up the flames. They were told to evacuate at 1 a.m. and traveled through smoke and flames so hot “it felt like my car was melting.”

“We were dodging downed limbs and rocks and traffic was backed up bumper to bumper,” Cameron says. “Embers were pouring down everywhere.”

After navigating to a safe place, he started making calls to make sure the evacuees in his county were being cared for. He opened the state fairgrounds and secured rooms at an almost-vacant hotel reserved for COVID-19 patients.

“Right now I’m staying at my daughter’s house,” says Cameron, although he has been told that his house survived. “Most of the town is gone, many of the structures are just gone. It’s surreal and you mourn. Most people can’t get back to their houses, so they don’t know if they are standing or not. That’s when the anger comes in, the not knowing.”

The remains of Kayla Carter's family's home. Kayla Carter

Kayla, Andrew and their son are now living in Salinas, about 90 miles south and near Monterey, with family members.

“Even if they rebuild, we’ll end up staying in this area," she says. "We won’t be back.”

Her father-in-law and other family members, who are currently staying in a Livermore hotel, plan on moving back to the property as soon as possible.

“My 8-year-old niece had to start school with distance learning from a hotel. Doing distance learning is a challenge then to do it outside your comfort zone,” Carter says. “It’s just all too much.”

The Carters have a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a trailer and rebuilding costs.

To help communities facing destructive wildfires in the Western U.S., consider donating to the following organizations:

The American Red Cross allows donors to direct funds to support people impacted by the fires.

GlobalGiving’s Wildfire Relief offers emergency funding to local efforts providing essentials to wildfire victims in need.

GoFundMe’s California Wildfire Relief Fund aims to "support a range of needs" by issuing "grants to individuals, organizations and communities that have either been impacted themselves or are dedicated to helping."

The California Fire Foundation "provides emotional and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters, firefighters and the communities they protect."

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