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McKenzie River Corridor Residents Reflect On One-Year Anniversary Of Holiday Farm Fire

Brian Bull

Today marks one year since a series of devastating wildfires erupted across Oregon, including the Holiday Farm Fire.  The destruction of McKenzie River Corridor communities such as Blue River still resonates deeply with locals.

At first, Labor Day 2020 felt like a typical holiday: kids swam and anglers tried their luck in the deep green waters of the McKenzie River.  Locals grilled burgers and enjoyed family get-togethers under the dense canopy of pine and fir trees that blanketed the hillsides. But in a recent interview with KLCC, Ed Hiatt, Interagency Fire Staff Officer for Northwest Oregon, recalled the unusually high east winds and dry conditions which made for a horrific night.

“Y’know, we recognize the fact that last year and the events following those fires and those events can bring up a lot of emotion in folks. They do for us as well," he said. "The difference being that that wind event lasted for several days, and the velocity that the wind blew…that is not the norm.”  

The cause of the Holiday Farm Fire has yet to be determined. But what’s definite is the terror residents felt as hundreds fled for their lives that same night.  In a 2020 interview with KLCC, Tim Laue recalls seeing the landscape shrouded in flame and smoke.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
EPA hazmat crews rummage through the wreckage of Blue River in late October 2020.

“Driving down that highway, and particularly on the south side it was like looking into a blast furnace," said Laue.

"It was working that hot and it was moving incredibly fast. It was so hot that people’s tires were melting.  A couple of people I know had to drive down on rims to get to Vida, at about 10 miles per hour.” 

Only one person died as a result of the fire, a man in Vida.

The Holiday Farm Fire burned more than 173,000 acres, including over 500 homes and offices.  Melanie Stanley lost her general store, which was a popular gathering spot for Blue River locals.  She expects to have it rebuilt and open by spring 2022, but acknowledges rebuilding the community may be harder.

“I’m hoping that we can reinvent at this point our community, and get people to come home and get new people here. Because with all of the devastation that we’ve seen, it is going to be a bit harder to want to move here as permanent residents.” 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Melanie Stanley (left) and Upper McKenzie Fire and Rescue Chief Christiana Rainbow Plews (right) in Blue RIver, early August 2021.

To help, state lawmakers recently allocated more than $5 million in lottery funds towards rebuilding Blue River’s health clinic, fire station, and library. And another $15 million to repair and replace its water and sewage system.  Oregon Governor Kate Brown made the announcement in early August.

“As President Biden would say, we’re working hard to build back better. And I think with this collaborative community effort, we will absolutely get there.” 

Jamee Savidge is another Blue River resident.  She’s with the McKenzie Community Development Corporation which spearheaded early relief efforts up and down the corridor. Savidge is pleased at the gains made in rebuilding, however…

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Blue River resident Jamee Savidge, in a cleared section of town.

“...a major misconception when people do come out is they see a building standing and think that it wasn’t that bad, or we’re a lot further along in the rebuild than we are," said Savidge, sitting in an empty lot where several homes used to be.

"And the reality of the situation is, I believe we have less than five residents that are living back on their property in a manufactured home, and not one resident back in a stick-built home yet, post-fire.” 

Savidge’s organization was a project partner behind the creation and installation of a special sculpture in Blue River.  Called “Veribus”, it was made from scrap metal gleaned from burned ruins across town, and portrays a phoenix rising from the ashes.  A symbol of resilience, Veribus will watch over townsfolk as they rebuild their community brick-by-brick, in the coming years.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Veribus the Phoenix now stands on Blue River's main strip, representing strength and fortitude in the face of adversity. Several partners, including Love for Lane County and the McKenzie Community Development Corporation, helped commission the work.  Artist Jud Turner used scrap metal donated by local residents to create most of the piece.

Addendum: Last night, McKenzie River Corridor residents held a commemorative procession up and down Highway 126, which retraced the Holiday Farm Fire’s roughly 27-mile long path. 

Copyright 2021, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ 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 (19 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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