It Seems to Me….
July 1, 2021
r Day night 2020; nine months since the Holiday Farm Wildfire devastated more than 170,000 acres and destroyed more than a thousand structures and five-hundred homes in the McKenzie Watershed. Three seasons (Fall, Winter, and Spring) since thousands of McKenzie folk had to run for their lives. I was one of those people. I left our home at midnight taking with me with our dog, a ‘bug-out’ bag, the shirt on my back, and little else. As I was preparing to leave, I walked through our home one last time to say goodbye. It was clear what was in store and the home, where we intended to live out our lives, was to be no more.
As this was happening to me, a similar experience was happening to thousands of others along the McKenzie. Level III, Leave Now, evacuations were in effect throughout the corridor but too many did not know of the danger until there was yelling and pounding on the door. When the power went out, people went to bed unawares. The firestorm was moving so fast, driven by high-velocity winds, low-humidity, and intense heat, that it took almost everyone by surprise.
So, we left. We took what little we could on the way out, but everything else was left behind. Everything! Those meaningful place marks of a lifetime: gifts made by the small hands of children; scrapbooks of memories; mementos from loved ones; cherished small totems invested with meaning from family, friends, and neighbors. These were the milestone remembrances of our lives—births, graduations, weddings, celebrations and much more. Items of no monetary value, but priceless and unreplaceable all the same. Their loss costs so much more than the cost to replace material possessions.
Then I was heading downriver in a caravan through hell. The firestorm was everywhere from the deck to the hillcrests on both sides of the river the fire raged unabated with a white-hot intensity unlike anything I had ever seen before and I pray never to see again.
There are dozens of stories from that night, far too many to relate here, stories where neighbors woke neighbors and got them out, where people saved friends in disabled vehicles, where first responders picked families off the highway and brought them to safety. For all of that, and because of the amazing life-saving acts of love, only one person perished that night—a man who refused to evacuate even as the fire was bearing down around him.
There are many reasons for this, but at its core, it is because people who live up the McKenzie are strong, proud, generous, and resilient. McKenzie folk (particularly the lifers who have lived here for generations) do not want handouts and are reluctant to accept helping hands. They are wary of outsiders and have almost no trust in government, with little patience for those who would tell them where and how to live, what opportunities they can and cannot have, and what they can and cannot do with their lives. Those who do that are met with icy stares and stone countenances—when they are met at all.
The people of the McKenzie do trust each other. Time and time again, circumstances (whether natural, social, or economic) have placed neighbors, friends, and families in a place where some needed help while others had help to offer. Help came from neighbors and friends offered without pause or hesitation, gratefully accepted, and generously returned when the tables were turned. That has helped the people of the McKenzie endure when it feels like they have been forgotten and left behind to fend for themselves by the world outside.
And they share something else, the McKenzie itself. The McKenzie River with its pure, pristine, clear, and cold water is the lifeblood of the Valley. It runs from Clear Lake to the Willamette and is surrounded by a watershed with as diverse as nature itself. From the fields, farms, and orchards of the lower Valley, through the forests, waterways, and outdoor opportunities of the middle McKenzie, up to the waterfalls, wilderness areas, sub-alpine meadows to the Three Sisters at its upper most reaches, the McKenzie is home to us all. The McKenzie is coded in our genes and lives in our souls.
If the Holiday Farm Firestorm of Labor Day 2020 has not defeat us, and it has not, then the speculators, developers, or opportunity seekers looking to turn a quick buck do not have a prayer. We pay attention, we are vigilant, and we have allies: like-minded people and organizations who share our passion. Allies who are local, regional, and worldwide. The McKenzie will recover. It is turning green again and is beginning to thrive again. It will retain its unique character, compelling story, an unmatched wonder. It will because it is strong, and its people are strong—McKenzie Strong.