One Year Later, Signs Of Life In Community Scarred By Echo Mountain Fire
Melynda Small knew her house was in trouble when the Echo Mountain Fire bore down on the unincorporated town of Otis in Oregon’s coast range.
"293 homes burned, and ours was one of them," she said.
But after the smoke cleared last fall, Small rolled up her sleeves with many of her neighbors and got to work. She says they cleared dozens of properties of twisted metal, crumbling bricks, and ash. "There was so much ash," she said.
As of mid-September 2021, debris removal was nearly 90 percent complete, according to the Oregon Debris Management Task Force. New homes are going up on site or arriving by truck on a regular basis.
It all adds up to progress, said Small. "In the beginning it was really hard being out here every day with all of the burnt grossness," she said. "As the cleanup went on, and more and more properties were cleared out, it wasn't so ugly. And now it's beautiful.”
One reason why it’s looking better: Over the winter, some community members looked around and figured that even with new houses already going up, the town just wouldn’t look the same. The process of removing hazardous debris from lots where houses once stood left scorched earth--literally---in its wake.
"It was just kind of barren," said Dawn Villaescusa, who's been helping with the beautification efforts. "Everything was scraped down to bare dirt. Most of the trees were gone, and anything that was left was severely damaged."
Villaescusa lives in nearby Lincoln City and has friends in Otis. She and some others started asking around for gardening supplies, nursery stock such as saplings and shrubs, and grass seed. Donations poured in. The crew fashioned a makeshift greenhouse, a tool library, and a small nursery where fire victims can walk through and choose plants for their yard.
With help from the Oregon State University Extension, the group even started a demonstration garden to showcase fire resistant plants.
"It's been quite an education for us, because most of us had heard of drought-resistant plants, but we had really never heard of wildfire-resistant plants," said Villaescusa. "So it's been exciting to build this and learn more about what makes it that way."
Villaescusa said more than half of the homeowners in the Otis burn zone have sought their help, with some folks just needing little more than some expert advice.
"There are people who just want somebody to come out and talk to them about what's the best thing to plant where, that type of thing," she said, adding that the organization is in need of volunteers who can provide expert advice on landscaping questions.
As Melynda Small looks around the neighborhood that surrounds the Landscaping With Love greenhouse, she marvels at how far the community has come since the wildfire swept through nearly 13 months ago.
"We've all just come together," she said. "And we're a lot closer now. So it actually feels really good out here now."
Landscaping With Love plans to stay active through the next two planting seasons, meaning the volunteer effort will stretch more than two years after the Echo Mountain Fire was contained.