Oregon wildfires are adding more fuel to young activists' legal climate battle

Plaintiffs in Juliana v United States are suing the government for violating their constitutional rights and asking for a recovery plan

In early September, Jacob Lebel was in Clackamas, Oregon, preparing to relocate a tannery to his family’s Rose Hills Farms when fire broke out 180 miles away. He was quickly summoned back.

Lebel, 23, drove three hours home to defend his farm under banks of yellow clouds that slowly reddened until purple hues overtook the area just north of his farm, then turned to reddish brown, then black.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, it was quite an experience. Very eerie,” he said. “It was not even sunset and it was just pitch black.”

Oregon suffered its most intense fire season in recent history this fall, with blazes raging across the state killing 11 and destroying at least 4,500 buildings. The state, like others in the American west, has seen its fire season grow longer and more fierce in recent years, as climate change-related drought and heat have made the landscape more prone to burning and years of fire suppression have caused fuels to build.

Now, the plaintiffs in a landmark climate change lawsuit against the US government are shoring up their legal footing following the fires. Lebel is one of 21 young plaintiffs who sued the US government in 2015 over climate crisis.

More than half of the plaintiffs in Juliana v United States are from Oregon, and at least 10 litigated increased risk of wildfire when they originally sued the federal government. They charged that the government’s continued subsidies, authorization and permits for the fossil fuel energy system were violating their constitutional rights by contributing to a changing climate.

Julia Olson, attorney for the plaintiffs, said following the 2020 fires, the legal team was shoring up records related to the fires, including photographs of plaintiffs in homes in Portland and Eugene, where air quality was some of the worst in the world during blazes. Those who received disaster notices from the federal government or insurance providers were also gathering those records for the court, she said.

The case was dismissed by a ninth circuit court panel in January. The plaintiffs are seeking a rehearing by the full ninth circuit court. Olson said their attorneys were reaching out to the transition team of President-elect Joe Biden and planned to ask the department of justice, under Biden, to file a brief amending its legal position in the case. She said the plaintiffs would also seek to negotiate a climate recovery plan to settle the case, one to be filed by consent decree with the court.

“It’s really only through this kind of court order to protect fundamental constitutional rights that Biden can secure that … lasting climate legacy for his presidency,” she said. “Particularly if Democrats don’t take back the Senate, there’s only so much a president can do that actually is secure for future generations. This takes it out of that political realm and into that constitutional realm where a court order binds our government to stop destroying young people’s rights.”

Lebel is one of two plaintiffs who were raised on farms in Oregon’s rural south, which are regularly threatened by the lengthening wildfire season. They have charged the fires threaten their families’ livelihoods, health, and property.

Lebel’s biodynamic farm raises vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, fruit, nuts and timber. “If we were really unlucky we would lose 15- to 20-year-old fruit-bearing trees, we’d lose structures, a greenhouse, fencing, timber – ecosystem damage all around that would take years to fix,” Lebel said about the threat of the fires.

Amid warnings of evacuation, his family and farmworkers spent nearly three days filling and repairing a water truck and pressure washers, hooking up pumps and filling an orchard sprayer in preparation to defend the farm. They cleared a 10ft radius around his house and other critical structures with a bulldozer, plowing under grass, cutting branches, and anything else that could burn close to buildings.

In such a scenario, he said, “Moving the animals out on short notice like that is not very practical.”

He said workers wore N95 masks for breathing, and that his geese wheezed throughout the ordeal. After three days, when it was clear the farm would be spared, he was notified that the tannery he had been preparing to relocate was under threat from the Clackamas areas fires. He rented a U-Haul and drove north to rescue customers’ hides from that business

“There was some freak things like the windstorms but we are definitely seeing a trend of hotter, drier, longer fire seasons,” he said.


Lee van der Voo in Portland, Oregon

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Biden condemns Trump as 'climate arsonist' as wildfires burn – as it happened
Democratic contender attacks Trump’s climate strategy, while president says of the crisis ‘I don’t think science knows, actually’ – follow live

Kari Paul, and Joan E Greve and Martin Belam

15, Sep, 2020 @1:28 AM

Article image
More than 60 wildfires rage across US west – including blaze bigger than Portland
Thousands have been forced to evacuate from Alaska to Wyoming amid soaring temperatures and a drought

Guardian staff and agencies

14, Jul, 2021 @12:50 AM

Article image
Teen activists face US government in crucial hearing over climate trial
The suit accuses the federal government of violating young people’s constitutional rights by contributing to the climate crisis

Lee van der Voo in Oregon

04, Jun, 2019 @10:12 PM

Article image
Oregon wildfire causes miles-high ‘fire clouds’ as flames grow
Pyrocumulus clouds viewable from 100 miles away as Bootleg fire grows beyond size of New York City

Guardian staff and agencies

16, Jul, 2021 @11:54 PM

Article image
Armed civilian roadblocks in Oregon town fuel fears over vigilantism
People driving in Corbett describe being stopped by militias and asked to identify themselves as fires burn

Jason Wilson in Portland

16, Sep, 2020 @8:33 PM

Article image
US wildfires: smoke billows and we're stuck indoors – this is how we live now
The pool is closed, the kids can’t play outside – we’re all trying to avoid harmful smoke from wildfires burning far away

Emma Marris in Klamath Falls, Oregon

06, Aug, 2018 @12:58 PM

Article image
US fires: Oregon wildfires kill at least 10 while 22 people are still missing
Blazes in three states have killed at least 35 and forced tens of thousands to flee while smoke-filled air tanked air quality

Maanvi Singh in Oakland, Joan E Greve in Washington and Dani Anguiano in Paradise

15, Sep, 2020 @1:38 AM

Article image
Firefighters battle on in Oregon, scouring ruins for the missing
Thousands of evacuees settle into a second week of life in shelters as Trump approves a federal disaster declaration

Vivian Ho and agencies

16, Sep, 2020 @4:03 PM

Article image
US wildfires: Oregon has 'never seen this amount of uncontained fire', governor says – as it happened
At least eight killed in California, Washington and Oregon amid blazes in 13 states

Sam Levin in Los Angeles (now) and Joanna Walters in New York (earlier)

11, Sep, 2020 @12:18 AM

Article image
'Rumors spread like wildfire': false posts claiming activists started Oregon fires flood social media
Officials have asked public to stop sharing rumors about the cause of fires that have killed three people and destroyed several towns

Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

11, Sep, 2020 @12:15 AM