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Rubble & Ash 

Survivors speak, climate scientists weigh in on the historic devastation of the Oregon wildfires

As 30 different wildfires continue to burn—so vast they can be seen from space—toxic flames that blanketed the West Coast have forced many Central Oregonians to grapple with this grim and historic event, first-hand.

TREVOR LYDEN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Trevor Lyden Photography

More than 7,500 firefighters from nearly 40 states and three Canadian provinces are battling the blazes in Oregon, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Data shows nine people dead, five still missing, with a staggering 2,268 homes destroyed, along with 1,556 other structures. More than 2,500 evacuees are in shelters scattered across the state—including dozens in emergency housing in Central Oregon. Nearly 3,400 survivors have signed up for individual assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The effects—beyond the smoky haze—are staggering.

What was once old growth. Gone.

As the winds howled and gusted up to 60 miles per hour on the eve of Labor Day Monday, Kiger Plews, 29, prepped for the upcoming windstorm by going into town and buying batteries in case the power went out. His house, near the McKenzie River in the tiny incorporated town of Vida, sat right next to his brother's and his parents'. Plews was calm. His other family members were not.

click to enlarge Kiger Plews' home in Vida, Oregon—along with the homes of other members of his family were devastated in the Holiday Farm Fire. - KIGER PLEWS
  • Kiger Plews
  • Kiger Plews' home in Vida, Oregon—along with the homes of other members of his family were devastated in the Holiday Farm Fire.

"My brother was a little more on edge than normal because it was so dry out," says Plews. They knew downed power lines could quickly start wildfires. "Whereas my mom just had this sinking, gut feeling, knowing the winds were strong and coming from the east. She knew something was off and different about this situation. We had scares before in that area, but it was just those high winds and the dryness. She knew it was the perfect storm."

Plews' mother didn't just have a sixth sense about fire; she had 30 years of experience dealing with it. Chief Christina Rainbow Plews, or Chief Rainbow, as she prefers to be called, is the fire chief of the Upper McKenzie Rural District Fire Department—one of fewer than 50 women in the U.S. to be ranked that high.

Kiger Plews recalls the moment he heard the fire alarms go off in his mother's home, signaling a downed powerline at the Holiday Farm RV Park, which blew into some grasses and started off as less than 1/10th of an acre in size—the start of the devastating Holiday Farm Fire.

Sticking his head out the window, he watched as his mom ran to her rig, wildland gear on, to begin what would be a nearly 60-hour work shift. As she left, she said to his dad, "This is my worst nightmare." 

Within hours, the fire, pushed by those strong winds that she had feared so much, would jump across Highway 126 and into residential areas. She would be calling a Level 3—a "Go Now" evacuation order, and within hours, the fire would stretch more than 20 miles, incorporating the communities of McKenzie Bridge, Blue River and Vida. 

"I think everybody sort of thought I'd lost my mind," Chief Rainbow said about issuing the Level 3 order. "It was clearly getting bigger by the minute, faster than we could drive." She didn't think the fire would stretch the 20 miles her order extended it to, she said, but it did. Officials have agreed her choice to evacuate so extensively prevented catastrophic loss of life. 

Chief Rainbow effectively saved hundreds of lives as she and her volunteer battalion drove around blasting sirens and personally knocking on doors telling people to get out. Those areas have since been dubbed by those who've returned as a "total loss."

In Blue River, just east of McKenzie Bridge along Highway 126, one resident, Sean Davis, said, "It doesn't exist anymore. It's just a name."

In the Holiday Farm Fire, an estimated 173,094 acres have burned, with over 300 structures reported lost. Among those are the homes of about a half-dozen firefighters on Chief Rainbow's crew—including her own family's. A recent GoFundme set up by Bend resident and Blue River native Kaili Swetland, whose own family lost structures within the fire, garnered more than $50,000 for the McKenzie Bridge firefighters who lost those homes.

A scene from Vida, where multiple members of the Plews family—one of whom is fire chief for the Upper McKenzie Rural District Fire Department—lost their homes. - KIGER PLEWS
  • Kiger Plews
  • A scene from Vida, where multiple members of the Plews family—one of whom is fire chief for the Upper McKenzie Rural District Fire Department—lost their homes.

Kiger Plews is overwhelmed by the devastation, but also remarks on the unity among Oregonians.

"I would never wish this upon my worst enemy," he said. "The feeling of helplessness, vulnerability, fright, anger, anything you can think of, it's all rolled up into one emotion.

"But at the same time, I think a lot of people might have lost hope in the good of people, the good in society. And it's really shitty that it had to be something like this to shed light on the fact that there are still a lot of really, really, really good people out there. 

"Over the last few days, I've seen people from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum, people from different parts of the U.S., different parts of Oregon, literally people from different walks of life, working hand in hand to help people they don't even know. It gives me a lot of hope."

Two wildfires merge

While the Holiday Farm Fire scorched areas along the McKenzie River, the Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires remain the two largest wildfires burning in Oregon, merging to burn 400,000 acres and seeing entire communities such as Detroit reduced to rubble and ash. Frightening stories of narrow escape and harrowing survival have emerged since. 

Among the harrowing stories is the one of the 80 or so Detroit residents and nine firefighters who were caught at a boat dock, both ways out blocked by raining fire, fallen trees and landslides, as reported in The New York Times. When helicopters sent out to rescue them couldn't land amid the winds, they mounted a last defense by placing firefighting trucks as their blockades. Only then did a U.S. Forest Service member find and clear a logging road with a way out to safety, the NYT story detailed.

Then there's the Detroit dam operator who rode out nearly 60 hours inside the concrete dam while fire engulfed the area around him, as reported by KGW. Then there are the five men who stayed behind and worked tirelessly for days to save parts of the historic Breitenbush Hot Springs—including the 1920s timbered lodge. Nearly half of the facility's buildings burned.

And then there are the unspoken heroes.

Some of the wildland firefighters who are still currently working in the trenches—including those in the Willamette National Forest Santiam River Zone—have also lost their homes. Molly Blackburn is a former U.S. Forest Service employee. Her husband is a USFS crew superintendent who's lived and worked in Detroit in the past and is currently fundraising for those firefighters. Her Gofundme has raised over $7,000 of the $10,000 requested in order to support the crew members who were renting homes within a compound and who lost possessions that would not be covered by homeowners' insurance. Blackburn's own family home, bought by her father in the '70s, was destroyed in the fires—but the fund doesn't benefit them. "They have insurance, the other guys do not. So I'm trying to help them get on their feet once they finish working the fires and come back to nothing."

Chief Rainbow, aka Christina Rainbow Plews, says people thought she was being overzealous when she issued a Level 3 "Go Now" order for Vida and its environs the night the Holiday Farm Fire spread. She's now credited with saving many lives. - JAY PENSE
  • Jay Pense
  • Chief Rainbow, aka Christina Rainbow Plews, says people thought she was being overzealous when she issued a Level 3 "Go Now" order for Vida and its environs the night the Holiday Farm Fire spread. She's now credited with saving many lives.

Blackburn is dismayed at the extent of the wildfires this year, filled with the knowledge that her husband, who heads a 20-person crew, feeds her. "It's widespread and intense," she says, adding that she knows he doesn't usually tell her to the extent of the devastation so as not to cause her to worry too much.

"My stomach turns as I imagine the fire cresting the hill to the east of our home," Blackburn said. "I imagine the heat and gases from the fire blasting the glass in the kitchen and dining room, allowing the fire to enter our home uninvited. The flames licking and searching for fuel. The art my mom collected. The furniture my dad built. The photos bubbling and crumpling to ash. My sister's prom dresses, my childhood teddy, Crunchy....Christmas ornaments, fly rods, drawings, letters. My dad's Purple Heart and the blood-soaked letter from my grandma he had in his pocket on the day he got shot in Vietnam. Every day, I'm reminded of things lost in the fire."

Blackburn's family, she says, won't be returning to rebuild. 

"My mom says she's done. It's something I've always worried about and it finally happened—and though she loves the area and that house, she says, 'I can't go back there and rebuild everything.' Which is extremely sad. My daughter is three and a half and she won't ever see it as I saw it in my lifetime. How magical that area is. Was. It's just so heartbreaking."

Extreme wildfires: a new normal?

Is the magnitude of these wildfires a once-in-a-generation event of historic and devastating consequences that won't be seen again this generation? Many climate scientists, researchers and Oregon residents resoundingly say no.

"Scientists and ecologists have been projecting this for decades," says Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and professor at Oregon State University. "It is really disheartening to realize that what people projected was fairly accurate, so I'm not surprised. I'm sad, but I'm not surprised." Fleishman, who's assisting in the 2021 release of the fifth Oregon Climate Assessment Report, says these wildfire events are fueled by three components: short term weather patterns, the lasting impacts of climate change and the changing patterns of human settlement. The unprecedented but not unusual easterly winds, the continued frequency of long-lasting droughts adding a carpet of ready and vast fuel and more people living in areas that are prone to fire have contributed to such catastrophic loss.

Numerous GoFundMe fundraisers have been set up for wildland firefighters who, while battling the blazes, also lost their homes. - KYLE BAKER
  • Kyle Baker
  • Numerous GoFundMe fundraisers have been set up for wildland firefighters who, while battling the blazes, also lost their homes.

While folks may seem overwhelmed as to how to prevent such events, Fleishman says there are two ways to think about it. The first is "preventing the event per se, minimizing the damage to life and livelihood." Changing building codes so that buildings are less flammable and building in areas that have been cleared and can be defended are some options—and ones employed for homes in Wildland-Urban Interface areas in Central Oregon. Also helpful is a knowledge of evacuation routes, and limiting the building of new homes in areas known to be fire-prone. 

"In some cases, the fires have moved so quickly and been so extreme that reducing fuel loads is unlikely to have prevented a major fire," says Fleishman. "And then there are a lot of areas that are burning which have not burned in a long time and some cases where past fires have actively been suppressed. So yes, fuels have built up."

Could thinning and prescribed fires help mitigate some of the disaster? 

"In some cases, yes, and in some cases, no," says Fleishman. "Thinning is often looked at as an alternative to reintroducing fire to that system, because it can be quite difficult for any number of reasons to implement prescribed fires...it's difficult to really evaluate whether that worked, but there are a lot of researchers trying to evaluate it, and there's obviously a lot of public discussion about it."

She adds that for eastern areas of Oregon, a factor to consider for a major fire event is the presence of cheatgrass, a non-native invasive grass that is highly flammable and spreading.

Fleishman also mentions mitigating greenhouse gases, which are "exacerbating climate change" over the long term.

"Ignoring the scientific evidence is not changing the likelihood of events, and it's not changing the short term or how people are responding to the fires. A lack of federal action is affecting worldwide reductions of greenhouse gases that ultimately increased the likelihood of these fires and the damages."

While the Oregon legislature stalled earlier this year on the "Cap and Trade" bill —Senate Republicans staged another walkout and boycotted the bill—Fleishman says that Oregon is still investing in things such as the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

1 million acres have burned in Oregon since the start of 2020—nearly double the 10-year average of approximately 557,811. - KYLE BAKER
  • Kyle Baker
  • 1 million acres have burned in Oregon since the start of 2020—nearly double the 10-year average of approximately 557,811.

"Creating consistent entities that are thinking about these issues, is something that a lot of states have not done... so when I look at the many different ways in which Oregon is aware of risks, and is planning, such as a climate change adaptation framework that's being worked on by 20 or more agencies, these are very positive ways in which Oregon is dealing with risks to human and natural systems, even when the Oregon legislature chooses not to engage."

Fleishman remains optimistic. "There are a tremendous number of experienced, wise people throughout the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies, and they are thinking about how the risks can be minimized. They're thinking about how to use limited or decreasing funds effectively to minimize the likelihood of fires and then to minimize loss of life and property when fires start. 

"So, leadership plays a big role but so does the, the workforce that you have and the commitment that you have from a lot of people throughout the government." 

And as she notes, "These large fires have long term effects on ecosystems and a lot of ecosystems are changing and they come back somewhat different. But in a sense, the ecosystems are much more resilient than the human communities that are affected."

About The Author

Magdalena Bokowa

Freelancer at the Source Weekly
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