The 2020 wildfire season in Oregon was the worst in history, with over 1700 square miles burned. This year the season has kicked in earlier and more fiercely than ever before (following the driest spring in Oregon history), and it seems likely to surpass last year’s devastation. I can’t add much to an understanding of the big picture, of how this is driven by climate change and will only worsen, but I thought I should post some images from our visit to the aftermath of the local Holiday Farm from last year, to detail the impact this will continue to have on our landscapes, communities, and people.
Holiday Farm Fire is such an innocuous, almost twee name – the qualifiers of “holiday” and “farm” make the “fire” sound rather cozy. But this fire burned over 250 square miles, killed one person, displaced thousands, and destroyed over 400 houses (including the home of writer Barry Lopez, who then died in a rental house in Eugene on Christmas Day).
We were camping at the coast after Labor Day when this fire blew up, and even 100 miles away, the smoke from the Cascade fires was overwhelming. We returned to Eugene for weeks of dangerously smoky air, and kept our telescope trained on the McKenzie River Valley, to check on the fire’s advance (which halted 15 miles from our house). The fire moved down the valley to the west, driven by winds from the high desert to the east. (This wind pattern is unusual here, but more common in California, with the Diablo and Santa Ana winds). Eventually the winds returned to the more normal westerlies, and the fire was contained. Here you can see the location and scale of the fire compared to the Eugene/Springfield metro area.
Then the school year started, Greta headed off for the fall with her Americorps team in Oklahoma, and a few other events transpired in the foul year of Our Lord 2020, with which we are all still coming to grips. Greta came back for a winter break, and on her last day at home we took advantage of some good weather to visit the fire zone. The first sign of the devastation was the constant traffic of logging trucks coming down Highway 126, removing all the cut trees.
The effects of the fire are visible on the ridges above the river for a couple of miles before they reach down to the highway, but then you come to the first close-up view of the devastation, between the highway and the river.
The cross-section of the cut trees shows how the far the fire penetrated through the bark and outer rings.
What immediately struck us was how dramatically this landscape had changed – previously the highway had been enclosed by trees on both sides, with views out to the river small and intermittent, similar to this stretch of highway further upriver:
Now the view of the river was continuous, as most of the wooded areas and houses along the river had been destroyed.
The houses located among the trees were all gone – not even metal roofing did anything to protect them.
Whereas those that had clearings around them sometimes survived.
The most shocking prospect was the town of Blue River, which had been completely destroyed:
We spoke to one woman, who was there helping a friend clear out his property. She lived further up the river near the fire’s origin point, and when she saw the fire’s trajectory, she called her friends in Blue River to make sure they evacuated. They had heard the warnings, but thought they had some time to pack up and clear out. She told them to drop everything and go; the fire arrived in about 15 minutes and took everything.
Away from the town, the devastation was extreme, but somehow harder to comprehend. A burned-out building is something we humans can relate to; miles upon miles of burned forest is almost too much to grasp. A scale figure helps.
We turned off Highway 126 to the Blue River Reservoir, which is surrounded by burned hills. Here we could see how the degree of destruction varied with topography, extremely local conditions, direction of the fire, etc.
Then there are the strange anomalies and juxtapositions – the drift boat that somehow survived with a large, melted hole. The sign missing just one leg. The cheery trailer park sign.
Four months after the fire, there were already signs of renewal, with plants springing up, and small acts of human resistance.
In 2018, we hiked through a three-year-old burn in Glacier National park, and were astonished at the renewal underway. But we’re not kidding ourselves about how quickly this area can snap back. I’m not capable of saying anything useful about the future of the natural environment here, but as someone whose work revolves around housing, the extent of the damage and the difficulty of recovery are clear. Our region was already suffering from a severe lack of housing, and adding a few thousand additional people strained resources further. Temporary housing has been secured for many, but the process of rebuilding (or even deciding whether rebuilding makes sense) has barely begun. And with the 2021 fire season well underway (the Bootleg Fire is poised to become the largest fire in Oregon history), it seems that there will be no pause for recovery before the next round of disasters strikes.
This potential doesn’t exist only out on the wildland/urban interface: in the center of Eugene, we are already beginning fire preparedness protocols, having seen how whole suburban neighborhoods have been wiped out in California cities in recent years. For years I’ve been predicting that Oregon could expect millions of climate refugees, as many other parts of the country became uninhabitable; the past three years have changed my perspective, as it is increasingly clear that no region will be spared.
One of the main reasons for the big trip that Greta and I undertook six years ago was Climate Change Farewell Tour – “I had realized that the world we live in will change dramatically in Greta’s lifetime, and I wanted her to have a good baseline understanding of what it was like for most of human experience. With increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and bigger storms, it’s hard to see how some of these places we’ve visited will still be inhabitable 50 years in the future.” As far as it went, my insight was pretty spot on. I just hadn’t realized that it would apply to our own place too, so soon.