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Lane County Official: Recovery From Holiday Farm Fire Will Be 'Long Road Ahead' For Locals

Brian Bull

It’s been almost five months now since the Holiday Farm Fire blazed through the McKenzie River Corridor. It destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in communities like Blue River and Vida.

KLCC talked to Lane County’s long-term recovery manager for the incident, Matt McRae, on the current state of the fire-ravaged area.

Bull: The Holiday Farm Fire consumed 173,000 acres, including more than 4,000 structures which included many homes and businesses.  Almost five months since it began, how would you begin to describe the State of the McKenzie River Corridor?

Credit Provided by Matt McRae.
Matt McRae, long-term recovery manager for the Holiday Farm Fire for Lane County.

McRae: Well, as you probably know there is a flurry of activity going on upriver.  There are efforts to remove hazard trees along both sides of the river, as well as cleanup efforts to begin removing debris from homesites in order to enable people to begin building back.

So, yeah, we’re on the front end of five months in.  We’re really shifting gears away from response, right? The fire is out, and the scene is largely stabilized. There aren’t major disturbances happening right now.

And so we’re shifting into recovery, which is really the long and difficult process of putting things back together. And to be sure, it’s a multiyear process, to try and get people living back upriver in new homes, and the infrastructure in place that has been lost.

Bull: What are the most pressing goals  for the year or two ahead?

McRae:  The most pressing goals for the year or two ahead, there are a couple of real primary goals. You know the transportation system is being stabilized. ODOT is doing a significant amount of work to make sure that the transportation corridor remains useable. 

Over the next couple years, the heavy lifting is going to be getting homes rebuilt, and getting people back into stable housing upriver.  When I say that, there’s a wide variety of experiences, right?  We have some people for home in the McKenzie was a second  home, and others who were living with very little and finding housing upriver and trying to support all of those people to get back to a stable situation is a significant effort.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Photos of Blue River in the McKenzie River Corridor, about a month and a half after the Holiday Farm Fire razed the town.

The other piece of course is the watershed as a whole, with a burn of this size and the loss of forest cover. And there’s salvage logging going on right now which you’re probably aware of.  So we would expect to see increased erosion, and in the longer term like several years out, a peak in some landslide activity.  We don’t know when landslide activity will peak, but it tends to be several years after the fire disturbance itself.

Bull: How would you describe the morale of the McKenzie River Corridor residents you’ve met and talked to?

McRae:  That’s a real good question, Brian. This is a really hard time for those who were displaced by the wildfires that happened in September. The initial response in getting people out of the way, there was a lot of effort, a lot of response resources to help people evacuate and support their immediate needs. There was a ton of community support to bring out donations and support those evacuees. 

But we’re now at that spot where we’re several months in, and that initial flush of community support has largely subsided. The folks who’ve been displaced are…the vast majority of them are still in temporary housing.  Either housing with families, or sheltering with support from non-government entities and government entities to provide shelter. 

This is really perhaps the hardest part of being in a disaster, is the several months after, when the big push of concern has largely subsided, and there’s a long road ahead.  People who’ve been displaced are seeing that it’s going to be many months and years to get things put back together, and so this is a hard place to be.  

Bull: Many people in our listening audience are community-minded and compassionate.  How can they help recovery efforts in a way that supports you and benefits wildfire survivors?

McRae: For those in our community who know people who’ve been displaced, just reaching out and providing a personal contact to support people who are in the middle of recovery, I think is really important.  This is an emotionally difficult time for survivors, and any support that they can get from friends and loved ones is really important now. 

And secondly, people can make financial donations. United Way of Lane County has a fund specifically for wildfire recovery.  So that’s one place where funds can be contributed to support the recovery effort.   

The website that’s been setup to support recovery is called McKenzieRebuilds.org.  People can find more information there.

Bull: Matt McRae, long term recovery manager for the Holiday Farm Fire for Lane County, thank you so much for your time.

McRae: Thanks for having me Brian.  

Copyright 2021, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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