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On First-Year Anniversary, Procession Marks Trail Of Holiday Farm Fire

Brian Bull

More than a hundred residents of Oregon’s McKenzie River Corridor retraced the 27-mile long path of last year’s Holiday Farm Fire last night.  The wildfire decimated much of the area, including the town of Blue River, when it erupted on Labor Day 2020.  And a year later, many residents are still recovering from the devastation.  

Altogether, the Holiday Farm Fire burned more than 173,000 acres and 500 buildings.  While much of the debris and wreckage has been cleared away, the formerly dense and lush forest landscape remains a spindly, charred remnant of its former self.

Credit Inciweb
A firefighter tries to protect a structure from the oncoming Holiday Farm Fire, September 2020.

Carmen Ashline was among those preparing to do the commemorative drive Monday night.  She lives at the Holiday Farm R-V Park, where the fire started and got its namesake.

Talking to KLCC, Ashline recalled the terror of one year ago, when she was out of town but had family caught in the chaos.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Carmen Ashline with her commemorative t-shirt, preparing to join the procession Monday evening.  She lives at the Holiday Farm RV park, where the fire began and drew its namesake.

“I sat down and listened to it all play out live, on the scanner while I had no idea if my family was getting out alive or not.”

Ashline said her relatives escaped the R-V park, but lost everything (she added that a nephew who lives behind Ike’s Pizza further down the corridor saw the fire reach his driveway, then stop.)

For the commemorative drive Monday evening, Ashline wore a bright yellow shirt that said, “I SURVIVED THE HOLIDAY FARM FIRE.”  She explained that other park residents had asked her to do something to mark the anniversary.

“So I put this on the Blue River bulletin board yesterday, and already I have 50 orders,” she said with a soft smile.

Another participant was Mary Ellen Wheeler, a fourth generation resident of the McKenzie River Corridor. She said many locals can’t forget the speed and ferocity of the flames they witnessed September 7, 2020.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Mary Ellen Wheeler, of the McKenzie Locals Helping Locals non-profit group, Monday night.

”You talk to people that had literally moments to get out of their house,” Wheeler said. “A gal that I work with, her sister and her daughter and her niece were in their house, and got trapped.  And one of the local fire department guys basically drove through over trees, over fire to go get them.

“And find them huddled out by a mailbox, got them in his truck, and out they went.”

Wheeler is president of the grassroots group, McKenzie Locals Helping Locals. She said a year later, residents are dealing with the complicated permit process and clean-up of their property sites. 

Around 8:30pm, dozens of fire trucks, forest agency vehicles, and private cars left their gathering area near the Blue Sky Market, and rolled down Highway 126.  They detoured through Blue River, honking their horns, flashing their emergency lights, and whooping and cheering out their windows.

Anthony Abel was waiting for them near the site of the town’s destroyed General Store and Liquor Depot.  He shone his parked truck’s headlights upon Viribus, a phoenix sculpture symbolizing people’s resilience during disaster.  It had been installed in late August by Eugene-area sculptor, Jud Turner.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Viribus the Phoenix, recently installed for the Blue River community.

“It’s been a struggle to find some normalcy,” Abel said, after the last vehicle roared past.  “But I’m getting there, and I’m thankful for that.”

The night the Holiday Farm Fire roared through the town, Abel managed to flee with his van, his dog, and the clothes on his back.  He says every day since has had its ups and downs, but he’s finding purpose in helping Blue River rebuild.

“It was hard at first, getting easier every day, and I’ve met a lot of neat people on working with this disaster relief.  It’s made a difference and you meet a lot of neat people through that process.”

Abel now runs a tool library. Locals can check out equipment to help them rebuild, ranging from saws to jackhammers.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
The end of the procession was in Leaburg, marking the westernmost edge of the Holiday Farm Fire last year.

After the procession returned back to Highway 126, Abel and a friend comforted another local, Evan Gosa.  The teacher heard and saw the commotion and wondered if yet another fire had come to town.

“Oh my gosh,” Gosa laughed, as he looked around and saw no smoke or fire.  “Last year this time was pretty chaotic.”

Gosa recalled losing power, then seeing the eerie red skies the night of the Holiday Farm Fire. He and his wife kept their phones handy, but ended up leaving ahead of the town’s devastation. But their porch, camper, and surrounding forest were lost.

As to what Gosa’s looking forward to past the anniversary, his answer came quickly.

“The rain.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Melanie Stanley, after the commemorative procession wrapped up in Leaburg Monday evening.

By 9:30pm, the procession had wrapped up at the McKenzie Fire & Rescue Station in Leaburg.  Blue River resident and owner of the town’s razed general store, Melanie Stanley, says altogether, at least 82 vehicles had joined the event.

“It was a little bit emotional,” said Stanley, but “I’m happy to take part in it.  It helped make the drive…I won’t say ‘happy’, but good for the remembrance part of it, not the fear.

“Overall, I think it went really well.  A positive experience for everyone who took part in it.”

Stanley still expects to have her store rebuilt early next year, which she says will help establish some normalcy and routine for the community.

“I think this helped create a sense of healing,” added Stanley, as vehicles began turning back towards the highway.  She added there are still plans to do a special commemoration with locals to reflect on the disaster, which had been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

In spite of the massive destruction, only one person – a man in Vida – died during the Holiday Farm Fire.  But officials say it’ll take years to rebuild Blue River. The Holiday Farm Fire and other incidents created Oregon’s worst wildfire season in recorded history.

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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