In early September, Jacob Lebel was in Clackamas, Oregon, preparing to move a tannery to his family’s Rose Hills farms when a fire broke out 180 miles away. They quickly called him back.
Lebel, 23, drove three hours home to defend his farm under banks of yellow clouds that slowly flushed red until the purple hues reached the area north of his farm, then turned reddish-brown and then black.
“I had never seen anything like this, it was quite an experience. Very disturbing, ”he said. “It wasn’t even sunset and it was completely dark.”
Oregon suffered its most intense fire season in recent history this fall, with fires across the state that killed 11 and destroyed at least 4,500 buildings. The state, like others in the western United States, has seen its fire season grow fiercer and fiercer in recent years, as climate change-related drought and heat have made the landscape more prone to burning. and years of fire fighting have led to fuel build-up. .
Now, plaintiffs in a historic climate change lawsuit against the United States government are strengthening their legal base in the aftermath of the fires. Lebel is one of 21 young plaintiffs who sued the United States government in 2015 over the climate crisis.
More than half of the plaintiffs in Juliana v United States are from Oregon, and at least 10 litigated an increased wildfire risk when they originally sued the federal government. They charged that continued government subsidies, authorization and permits for the fossil fuel energy system violated their constitutional rights by contributing to a changing climate.
Julia Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that after the 2020 fires, the legal team was reinforcing records related to the fires, including photographs of the plaintiffs at homes in Portland and Eugene, where air quality was one of the highest. worst in the world during fires. . Those who received disaster notices from the federal government or insurance providers were also collecting those records for the court, he said.
The case was dismissed by a panel of the 9th circuit court in January. The plaintiffs are seeking a new hearing before the full 9th circuit court. Olson said his attorneys are reaching out to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team and plan to ask the Justice Department, under Biden, to file a brief modifying its legal position in the case. She said the plaintiffs will also seek to negotiate a climate recovery plan to settle the case, one that will be submitted by consent decree to the court.
“In reality, it is only through this type of court order to protect fundamental constitutional rights that Biden can secure that … lasting climate legacy for his presidency,” he said. “Particularly if the Democrats don’t win back the Senate, there is a limit that a president can make it really safe for future generations. This takes him out of that political arena and into that constitutional arena where a court order forces our government to stop destroying the rights of young people. “
Lebel is one of two plaintiffs who grew up on farms in rural southern Oregon, which are regularly threatened by the extended wildfire season. They have charged that the fires threaten the livelihoods, health and property of their families.
Lebel’s biodynamic farm grows vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, fruits, nuts and wood. “If we were very unlucky, we would lose fruit trees between 15 and 20 years old, we would lose structures, a greenhouse, fences, wood, damage to the ecosystem that would take years to fix,” Lebel said of the threat of fires.
Amid evacuation warnings, his family and farm workers spent nearly three days filling and repairing a water truck and pressure washers, connecting pumps and filling a garden sprinkler in preparation to defend the farm. They cleared a 10-foot radius around their home and other critical structures with an excavator, plowing under the grass, cutting branches and anything else that could burn near the buildings.
In such a scenario, he said, “Moving animals on such short notice is not very practical.”
He said the workers wore N95 breathing masks and that their geese gasped during the test. After three days, when it became clear that the farm would be saved, he was notified that the tannery he had been preparing to relocate was threatened by the fires in the Clackamas areas. He rented a U-Haul and drove north to salvage the skins of the customers of that business.
“There were some weird things like windstorms, but we are definitely seeing a trend of hotter, drier and longer fire seasons,” he said.
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