Oregon Extension continues amid pandemic, wildfires

The Oregon Extension Program continued as planned this fall. Despite the cancellation of many study abroad opportunities by the International and Off-Campus Studies Office due to COVID-19, the program was able to move forward due to the secluded nature of the trip’s location, the program’s website explains.

Situated in the wilderness of Ashland, Oregon, Oles who participate in the program choose to unplug for a semester in order to study topics like philosophy and religion, and to climb a mountain or two.

Students participating in the program became concerned this year, however, when over 7,000 fires started lighting up the West Coast’s forests and grasslands. With limited access to the internet and unreliable cell phone service, Finn Johnson ’22 explained that he originally heard about the fires through a professor’s 12-year-old son who described three major fires all within 80 miles of the Extension Program’s home base.

Despite the West’s arid conditions year-round, the year’s dry months of January and February —  one of the driest periods on record — soon became cause for great concern. By March 22, Governor of California Gavin Newsom had already declared a state of emergency due to a mass die-off of trees throughout the state, which has increased the risk of wildfires. For the past two years, Oregon has also been suffering through drought conditions.

“All the stuff around here is a tinderbox,” Johnson said. “It’s just so dry, everywhere.”

While students on campus have been able to follow the fires’ progress through a near-constant feed of online photos and articles, the Oles in Oregon have had a much different experience

The group only realized the extent of the wildfires’ damage a few days after the fires had started.

“I opened my laptop on Saturday, and it looked like the world had fallen to pieces,” Johnson said  “We got a lot of smoke. You couldn’t even see the sky. … It was just apocalyptic.”

Members of the Oregon Extension Program were never forced to evacuate, despite being placed under a Level I Evacuation Protection Alert for several days. Fellow students and professors facing natural disasters brings the reality of climate change closer to home for students on the Hill.

Despite the fires, Oles on the trip have still been able to enjoy classes, hikes and even backpacking trips in the Oregon wilderness — especially now that the danger has passed.


allbro1@stolaf.edu