6th and Main Streets, Downtown Oregon City

2:15 pm Sept. 11

It's time to get out of Oregon City, but Joe Perman's car has broken down. His friends have arrived on the city's main drag to help him, but the jumper cables aren't giving it enough juice. Downtown is deserted—an eerie bookend to the initial crowds of celebration when this same strip reopened from COVID-19 just four months ago.

"It's been 40 years. I've never seen anything like this before, ever," says Perman.

A city of nearly 40,000, just 13 miles from downtown Portland, is preparing to flee at a moment's notice.

Kelly Isaacs stands near Perman's car. Her cigarette mixes with the campfire air. She and her parents packed up their belongings, but the highways are jammed. "We figured if we left we would be sitting in traffic for a couple hours," she says, "so we're just still waiting. If we hear 'Level 3,' we're out of here, but hopefully it won't get to that."

They hook up new cables. No luck. They replace the fuel line fuse with a spare. Another attempt. The engine catches. Perman can leave town.

As nearly a million acres of Oregon burned in the past week, I drove toward the blazes, spending two days with the dazed and displaced residents of Clackamas and Marion counties. Read the next story.