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5 Stories That Defined Oregon in 2021

Plus, a look at how they might play out in 2022

By Julia Silverman December 29, 2021

With the sun setting on another year here in the Rose City, it's time to look back at the stories that mattered this year—and forward, to what's ahead in 2022.

If there is a common theme running through 2021’s biggest stories in Oregon, it’s this: Good news felt like it was in short supply. 

And even when there was slightly more cheerful news in the headlines, it was often accompanied by a more depressing doppelgänger. To wit: We got a new congressional seat! (Then again, increasing numbers of rural counties are voting to be annexed by Idaho.) Portland finally hosted Top Chef! (But a contestant from—argh—Seattle stole the show, and our hearts.) Portland native Mitchell S. Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize—but beloved local author Beverly Cleary died at age 104. See what we mean? It was just that kind of year. 

Here’s a look back at what 2021 brought to us; plus our bonus best guess at how those stories will reverberate in 2022. 

Heating Up 

Perhaps the story with the farthest-reaching implications this year was the June heat wave, which brought temperatures in Portland to a heretofore unfathomable 116 degrees. Climate scientists have been trying to warn us for years, but nothing says global warming like a monster heat wave during which deaths spike in an underprepared city, where the old saw about how summer doesn’t really start until July 5 in these parts no longer seems relevant. Sixty-nine people in Multnomah County died in the heat, the vast majority of whom had no access to air conditioning. 

What’s Next: The Pacific Northwest has been a nationwide hold-out against air conditioning, but that’s changing fast. Look for state government to invest, in a big way, in this infrastructure in 2022, particularly in lower-income communities.  

Fire, Fire Everywhere 

By now, no one is surprised when wildfire season makes lists like this. But this year is the first (to our knowledge) that smoke from Oregon fires caused hazy conditions as far away as New York, New Hampshire and other points east. When the smoke had cleared from this year, more than 800,000 acres were charred, about half of them due to Southern Oregon’s massive Bootleg Fire, so enormous that it created its own terrifying sounding “fire tornados.” Yes, this is another climate change story, and there’s every reason to expect that future fire seasons will be similarly intense.

What’s Next: Hard to say, but so far this year, La Niña is doing the Oregon snowpack a favor, with levels well above historical norms in most parts of the state. Dare we hope that these soaking wet conditions continue for months, to prevent a scorching summer in 2022? 

’Ello, Guv’nor! 

The Oregon governor’s race is still eleven months away, but it has already yielded some of the juiciest political subplots in decades. This one has it all folks: An heir apparent who has been waiting in the wings for years, a pedigreed son of Oregon who is making his first run at political office after years in New York, a well-funded Independent who is Oregon’s answer to West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and a wide-open race on the GOP side.

What’s next: The May primary is just five short months away. Expect fundraising levels to rise to as-yet-unseen levels for this state, and (we hope) a realistic debate about who has the best ideas about leading the state into a post-COVID, climate-uncertain future. 

The Pandemic That Just Won’t Quit 

But wait: 2021 was supposed to be the year of vaccines, and the year that we were all able to barbecue together for the Fourth of July, remember? Instead, the year has been a series of whiplash moments: Vaccine appointments were impossible to get, requiring hours of hovering over a keyboard...until suddenly, anyone who agreed to get vaccinated also got a $150 gift card for their trouble. Mask mandates were lifted, until they came roaring back with a vengeance alongside the Delta variant. Hospitals filled up with unvaccinated patients, straining the system almost to its breaking point in August, only to recede this fall—and now, forecasts are that they will head back up again thanks to the fast-moving Omicron variant, but no one can really say whether hospital capacity will bend or break. School buildings were closed, then finally opened a crack, then opened with layer upon layer of safety protocols in place, then, by year’s end, periodic early releases and non-instructional days were in the mix, billed as a pressure-release valve after a year of interrupted learning.

What’s next: It sure feels like we’re all about to get COVID, courtesy of Omicron. Here’s to hopefully mild cases, quick recovery and hard-acquired super-immunity that could maybe, finally, help transition us from the pandemic to the endemic era. 

What’s Next, Portland? 

Wherever you land on the spectrum of opinion about What’s The Matter With Portland (and to be clear, the potential answers range from ‘everything’ to ‘nothing to see here’), 2021 was yet another year of the city spinning its wheels in the face of constantly mounting, ever-unanswered questions. City leaders have promised police reforms, but citizen oversight efforts have lagged, 911 wait times have been unconscionably long, gun violence rose, protesters and police continued to have sporadic clashes and city council members dragged their feet on expanding a promising mental health response program citywide. The number of houseless encampments under bridges, along freeways, and at the edges of public parks, and families living in their cars, multiplied again and again, but at year’s end there was still no sign of the six promised safe rest villages touted as one solution—which would only serve several hundred people at most, anyway. And though both government and volunteer efforts for trash pickup have mushroomed this year, there's still plenty of illegal dumping grounds citywide.

What’s Next: We wish we knew. But 2022 will at least bring a likely vote on changing the city’s ungainly form of government, which could at long last break some of City Hall’s most persistent logjams. 

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