Almost eight months after the Holiday Farm Fire erupted near Blue River, Oregon, and tore through forests and small communities along the McKenzie River, recovery has been progressing slowly. While the smoky plumes rising from the mountainsides have dissipated, charred trees dot the barren landscape and remnants of burned buildings, garages, and cars still remain on many properties.
The wildfire that burnt over 173,000 acres destroyed hundreds of homes in the towns of Blue River, Nimrod, Vida, and Finn Rock, and resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people.
Though wildfires are growing more common in the western half of the United States, the Holiday Farm Fire caught residents of the McKenzie River Valley off guard as it ignited in the evening of September 7 and, aided by historically strong winds, quickly grew to engulf thousands of forested acres literally overnight. Those same winds also blew the heavy smoke into the Willamette Valley to the west, blanketing major towns like Eugene, Corvallis, and Salem in hazardous smoke and ash raining from the sky for a week. The fire was not fully extinguished until mid-October.
Much of Oregon experienced an unusually hot summer, which is becoming not-so uncommon as climates are changing and patterns in precipitation are shifting. Dr. Dan Leavell is the State Fire Specialist and Associate Professor in the Fire Program at Oregon State University, and he explained that the months of hot temperatures and lack of rain mean that the forests of western Oregon, which are known for their dense vegetation including layers of ferns, shrubs, and evergreens, had been turned into cured and dried fuel.
“You had this mass of biomass drying out, and it all collided,” Leavell said, speaking of the hot summer temperatures, lack of rain, and historic winds the week the wildfire was ignited. “When you have a fire driven by wind and an ocean of fuel, it’s going to burn. The wind really drove it… it was like a river of fire across that landscape”.
In addition to the perfect storm of conditions that made this wildfire spread so rapidly, the state was already tapped out of its combative resources, as over 40 other fires were burning in Oregon the week the Holiday Farm Fire erupted. As a result, only around 200 firefighters from local and state units were able to respond and work to contain the fire in the first few, crucial days.
Within the first week, the wildfire engulfed the McKenzie River Valley and destroyed more than 400 homes. In the past months since the fire was extinguished, massive environmental and community clean-up has been underway, and residents of the once idyllic towns are just figuring out how to rebuild.
Clean-up in the Aftermath
We then spoke with Lane County Commissioner Heather Buch, who tried to explain how people are feeling as they attempt taking the first steps towards rebuilding on their properties.
“People are trying to navigate this whole new world,” Buch said, explaining that “many people lost everything they owned literally overnight.”
The first step for everyone who owned land within the wildfire burn perimeter is massive clean-up. Besides the destruction of homes, properties, and belongings, fires leave behind hazardous wastes that need to be treated and disposed of properly, including asbestos from buildings, piles of ash and debris, and damaged trees that pose safety risks.
This effort involves multiple state and federal agencies including the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, and this coordinated clean-up must be completed before property owners are able to assess their land and plan for rebuilding.
“This is the most pressing need right now,” Buch said. “We’re hoping cleanup will be wrapped up by the spring.”
Two things most people take for granted were also lost during the fire; internet and cell phone service.
“It’s tough out here in rural areas where you don’t have underground broadband,” said Buch, “the terrain is just really rough.”
Luckily, temporary poles were recently placed along the McKenzie Valley to supply its residents with cell service and access to the internet, which is crucial for communication, looking into resources for affected families, and planning reconstruction.
Community Coming Back Together
With the lack of such relied upon methods of communication as email or a phone call, it’s been especially difficult for the community to safely come back together during the COVID-19 pandemic. A public resource fair was held at the Blue River High School on February 3-5, and it was the first major event hosted for the communities effected by the fire. And this came almost five months after the fire was extinguished.
“It’s been hard to get people together,” said Mary Ellen Wheeler, a board member of the group McKenzie River Locals Helping Locals (MLHL) that organized and hosted the resource fair. “This isn’t just an information thing, it’s a social thing.”
Wheeler, who was born and raised in Blue River where her family dates back four generations, explained that these communities are tight-knit groups of neighbors who are used to spending time together during weekly diner meals and regular fishing outings on the McKenzie and local reservoirs. After the fire was contained and locals were able to return, hundreds of people had nowhere to go, the restaurant Wheeler works at, the McKenzie Station Pub, fed their fellow community members for a month.
The strong bonds that people of Blue River, Nimrod, Vita, and Finn Rock have with each other could be felt at the resource fair. Despite the devasting reason for attending the event, attendees were talking and laughing with one another, and the atmosphere was surprisingly positive.
“This is what they need, they need to be talking to each other,” Wheeler said.
Among the attendees were public works employees of the area, business owners who had lost their properties, and families. Another local in attendance was Pete Petty, one of the leaders of the Blue River Blue Bottle Boys, a group of Forest Service employees who have been collecting bottles and cans to be deposited at the Bottle Drop in Eugene. All proceeds of the group’s efforts are going to rebuilding some of the pillars of the community lost in the fire, including the Blue River Library.
The Blue River Bottle Boys have already raised over $5,000 to rebuild the library. “One dime at a time,” Pete said smiling.
This is just one example of McKenzie Valley residents working together to help their beloved community and neighborhoods recover.
Dozens of booths were set up at the fair representing organizations that are or will be involved in clean-up and reconstruction. State, county, and local groups, as well as private companies, were present to talk to residents about their needs, whether that be reinstalling utilizes, removing hazard trees, or starting construction permits.
So far, it is a slow start. Not only does environmental clean-up need to finish, but many people don’t know where to begin a reconstruction. “Many people have never been through a whole building construction, most homes here were built in the 50’s and 60’s,” said County Commissioner Heather Buch, “but we hired three dedicated planning department folds to solely work on permitting and rebuilding in the McKenzie area.”
Despite the resources becoming available, permits for building reconstructions are just now starting to trickle in. As of a month ago, the county had only received a dozen permits to rebuild and just one had been approved.
Of the countless uncertainties victims of wildfires face when rebuilding on their property, there is one major question: is rebuilding in that location a realistic, or even good, idea?
As western Oregon is growing more prone to wildfires, there are fears that a similar tragedy could happen again in the not-so-distant future. In addition, many businesses were lost in the fire, so along with their homes, some people have also lost their jobs.
Another factor weighing in on this decision for some is the uncertainty of future rental options. About half of the residents of the McKenzie Valley receiving FEMA aid after the Holiday Farm Fire were renters. This may surprise anyone who has visited the area, as there were no apartment complexes or obvious rental properties to be seen, but that was just another charming aspect of these rural communities.
“There were a lot of untraditional, alternative rental situations,” Commissioner Buch said, pointing out that many people had hand-shake agreements with landowners to live on their property in RV’s, in converted barns, or in secondary homes on the properties. The rebuilding and return of these nontraditional rental options will be up to the individual landowners, and whether they build additional structures or offer such situations in the future.
“A lot of people don’t quite know what to ask, they just come up and say, “I lost my house, what do I do?”” said Jared Bauder, a Planner with the Lane County Land Management Division.
Building in Protected Areas
The reality many landowners now face also includes the practicality of rebuilding in the same spot. There are now protected riparian areas along many rivers within the U.S., including the McKenzie River, designed to conserve these important habitats.
In the 1960’s-70’s, many of these protections did not exist, so houses were built closer to or even on river floodplains. Rebuilding so close to the river may not be as easy, or even an option, with today’s environmental protection policies.
If people do wish to rebuild close to the river where an original structure may have existed, there are special floodplain assessments and development permits landowners will need to submit before construction to best protect new homes from flooding.
“It’s a hard thing that everybody’s going through,” Bauder said. “There’s a lot of regulations up and down the McKenzie because of the floodplain… it can be overwhelming. We’re just trying to provide as many opportunities to the public as possible”.
While the affected communities are still reeling from the unanticipated devastation, strong outside support and aid of numerous organizations are helping residents get a handhold on what future options may be. This will require not just financial, permitting, and construction assistance, but emotional and mental support as well.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is weighing heavily on the citizens of the McKenzie Valley, as most of them fled overnight, chased out by the winds and fire.
“People had minutes to get out,” Wheeler said. “People had to drive through fire.”
KLCC reported on Lane County Fire Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews who, after combating wildfires for 30 years, is taking a break after the Holiday Farm Fire to treat and recover from her PTSD. Chief Plews – also known as Chief Rainbow – lost both her fire station and her family’s home in Vida to the fire, and the night of the fire, her car broke down amid the flames. In the recorded interview with KLCC, you can hear the trauma in her voice as she recalls how she felt seeing her home and community burned so quickly.
White Bird Clinic out of Eugene is trying to create a presence in Blue River, Nimrod, Vida, and Finn Rock to aid returning locals with any mental suffering. Usually focusing on mental health counseling during personal crises, White Bird is shifting gears to try to help entire communities impacted by the fire. Working with existing counseling services to gain trust with residents and aid in their recovery, the goal is to restore not only the physical infrastructure in the towns of the McKenzie Valley, but also its people’s sense of safety and wellbeing.
“I’m hopeful people will want to rebuild, even though it will take the landscape a while to come back. This is a magnificent river,” Commissioner Buch reflected.
Don’t Forget Us
Though it may take years for the forests to regrow and the communities to rebuild, there is determination and a fierce love for this area. When asked what the greater community of Oregon could do for the towns affected by the Holiday Farm Fire, multiple people gave the same response – don’t forget us.
“We still have businesses up here,” Wheeler said, suggesting that when a tragedy does not affect you, you often forget. But the people of McKenzie Valley will never forget the Holiday Farm Fire, and months later, are just beginning to pick up the pieces.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this series.
If you would like to learn more about the Holiday Farm Fire or make a donation to organizations committed to rebuilding the affected communities, you can visit the following organization websites: