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Blue River locals rebuild their historic park

As residents on the McKenzie River struggle to rebuild from the devastating 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, one source of hope is the community effort to rebuild Blue River Park.

Before the Holiday Farm Fire, Josh Cloke and his family loved going across the street to Blue River Park.

“My kids enjoy baseball, so we'd always take the tee out there, gloves, bats. There's always a couple other kids running around that would join in," Cloke said. "It was just a fun place for them to go spin their wheels and run wild for a while.”

The park has been a hub for locals and visitors since 1952. There used to be events there like fundraisers, Easter Egg hunts, Trick-or-Treating and barbeques.

On September 7, 2020, Cloke’s family evacuated with embers at their doorstep. Across the river, they could see that the park was already on fire. Cloke describes how his children reacted to the emergency.

“They were scared," Cloke said. "And by the time we got to the end of our road, they saw the fire. It was very hard. There was a lot of nightmares for a long time.”

Cloke was a member of the Blue River Park District before the fire. After his family got situated in an RV, he and the other members got to work cleaning up the park. Tony Casad is a member of the park district who helped lead the effort.

“Imagine removing 225 burnt, dangerous trees," Tony Casad said. "All the debris that you get, the cleanup has been really difficult to do.”

After over a year, they still have more work to do. Casad attributes the project’s success so far to funding from FEMA, help from the National Park Service and other organizations, and impressive volunteer efforts.

“About eight weeks ago, we planted 1200 native plants. 72 people came out on a day that was supposed to be just, you know, raining like crazy," Casad said. "We filled up on our signup sheets so fast, that we actually had to turn away a few people just because we had just so many people.”

Now that the old site has been cleared, a brand new park is in the works.

The project is being designed by Audrey Rycewicz, a Master of Landscape Architecture Student at the University of Oregon. Rycewicz says the team’s goal is to build the park better than it was before the fire.

“We're hoping that the park will be a place for community gathering, a place for remembering the fires, a place for reflection, and a place to bring joy,” Rycewicz said.

They hope features of the project will include an off-leash dog park, updated playground equipment, chainsaw art and several spaces dedicated to sports.

In February, when the park district put out a survey for feedback on the original design, Casad says they didn’t know what to expect.

“I’ve seen other surveys that kind of fall flat on their face. People don't want to do them," Casad said. "More than 86 people responded from Cedar flats to McKenzie bridge, they were very passionate about this.”

The park is now open to the public while the community continues with the planning phase. The next challenge is to secure the funding they’ll need.

In the meantime, Cloke says that his 10-year-old and two seven-year-olds like to tell him which playground equipment would be the most fun.

“I think it gives them a lot of hope, you know, there's so much devastation that we've lived in," Cloke said. "As things start to come back, it becomes a little easier and more bearable to be there.”

The hope is to have a new Blue River Park in about two years. You can find out more at blueriverpark.com.

Noah Camuso is a freelance reporter for KLCC.