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As Blue River rises from the ashes, concerned locals ask: Who's coming back?

Brian Bull
Viribus the Phoenix being installed at Blue River, almost a year after the Holiday Farm Fire destroyed much of the town.

It’s been 15 months since the Holiday Farm Fire tore through the McKenzie River Corridor. It burned over 173,000 acres, including much of the rural community of Blue River. Dozens of families were displaced. And while money’s poured in to help rebuild the town, remaining locals are concerned if the original townspeople will ever come back.

Retracing the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire’s Path of Destruction

This past Labor Day, a procession of nearly 100 vehicles retraced the Holiday Farm Fire’s path through the McKenzie River Corridor, which included Blue River. Drivers sounded their sirens and honked their horns. The din resonated through the barren landscape, mostly empty lots and foundations where buildings once stood.

A year earlier, the Holiday Farm Fire ripped through this area. Residents fled with what they could throw into their vehicles, many rolling into neighboring towns on the rims of their wheels, the rubber melted off in the inferno.

The Holiday Farm Fire, September 2020.

The procession drove by a 13-foot tall sculpture known as Viribus the Phoenix. Organizers commissioned the sculpture to be made from scrap metal gleaned from the ruins of Blue River, to symbolize rebirth and resiliency.

Behind the scenes, Blue River officials and advocates are admittedly worried about when and how that rise from the ashes will happen.

“We lost our entire town,” said Melanie Stanley, inside her trailer office. Often referred to as the unofficial mayor of Blue River, Stanley lost her house, general store, and liquor shop in the fire.

“There are residents on the other side of the river from us, they're also all Blue River,” she added. “So thankfully a predominant number of their homes survived, which we're very thankful for. But yeah, overall, there's so much damage up and down the river.”

A slow and steady recovery

On a rainy morning, Jamee Savidge, another resident and member of the McKenzie Valley Long Term Recovery Group, walked me through the desolate area where many businesses and services once stood. The debris and charred foliage have long been hauled away by cleanup crews, leaving much of Blue River a flat mosaic of asphalt and concrete.

Brian Bull
(From L to R:) Blue River stalwarts Melanie Stanley, Jamee Savidge, and Samantha Winningham.

Behind that, set back a couple of streets will be the new home of the Blue River Fire Department,” Savidge said, pointing down Blue River Road towards the highway. “And across the street here near where the bus stop is, there will be the future site of the Brien Memorial Library.”

Savidge lives here with her 11-year-old son, and was fortunate not to have lost her house to the fire. But she’s seen the frustration and concern many locals have as they try to build back the town and their community. Besides the lengthy permitting process, contractors and materials are in high demand and short supply.

Brian Bull
In late October 2020, EPA crews removed hazardous materials from Blue River ruins.

“If you hadn’t pretty much signed on with a contractor in like, December [2020], you’re fighting right now to try and get anybody,” said Stanley.

Savidge added that of the 476 homes in the McKenzie River Corridor lost to the fire, 143 were approved for permits as of mid October, a little more than a year after the incident. And of roughly 50 homes destroyed in Blue River, about a fifth have been approved for permits.

The quandary isn’t necessarily with the 25% of people who lacked insurance or the other 25% who were well-insured, Savidge said. “It’s the 50% in the middle who are still struggling…just trying to figure out how they want to move forward.

"A lot of those people are stuck waiting on building material prices to come down and then waiting to see what happens with everyone else with their permitting process. Some of those people are still on the fence as to whether they will stay.”

As a parent, Savidge points out that the school and its activities relied heavily on volunteers. Other places including the library also depended on volunteers, while seasonal tourism is also reliant on people.

“It’s very concerning to me that we have such a large number of people that haven’t been able to figure out what they want to do, because of hurdles that keep getting put in front of them.”

As of October, Savidge says about two people are in new stick-built houses, while nine are in manufactured homes. They stand out amongst the ruins along the McKenzie River Corridor.

“It looks different now in the 25 miles where we had the highest concentration of the burn. But all of the beautiful things about it are still here. The hiking is still here, the river is still here, the fishing…and the people.”

Brian Bull
The remnants of a Blue River homestead, Oct. 2020.

The Oregon legislature allocated more than $600 million towards wildfire recovery efforts this summer – which included $3.5 million towards rebuilding Blue River’s community library and the Upper McKenzie Fire and Rescue station. Additionally, state lottery funds provided more than $15 million more towards rebuilding the community’s water and wastewater infrastructure.

But Stanley and other steadfast residents fear that if no one comes back, all that funding will result in a freshly-built ghost town.

“Y’know, we’ve lost a third of our community at this point. And so, what’s our demographic? Who are we rebuilding for?”

Upon finding new life outside Blue River

One person who’s moved away is 68 year-old Micki Shampang-Voorhies. She remembered the night of the wildfire, when a neighbor entered her home, yelling at her to get out.

“I was sound asleep with four cats and it was a neighbor who just came in and said “Get up!” It was raining fire. Big balls of fire. So I grabbed the four cats and left. That was it.”

Shampang-Voorhies lost her metalworking studio and home. Now she’s built a new life 600 miles away in the desert town of Kingston, Nevada, where she’s close to her son. Comfortably settled, she told KLCC she’s not going back to the Oregon community she knew for 26 years.

Photo provided by Micki Shampang-Voorhies.
Micki Shampang-Voorhies adjusts a new cutting table in her metalworking studio in Kingston, Nevada.

“I did okay as far as insurance, but the cost to rebuild in Blue River, just a home without a shop or anything, it was way cheaper or about the same amount of money to purchase a lodge here in Kingston,” explained Shampang-Voorhies.

“And the fear of having to go through a wildfire again, and the permitting and engineering process where they were so far behind.”

Shampang-Voorhies still owns her Blue River lot. She said maybe some day she’ll have a yurt built there, but for now is leaving it empty save for some wildflowers.

The bureaucracy of rebuilding

“This whole process is torturous,” griped 92-year-old Jim Baker. Another displaced resident, Baker moved to Blue River in the late 1960s then became president of several community groups. The Holiday Farm Fire destroyed his home, shop, and another cabin in the Finn Rock area. He now lives with a family friend in Ridgefield, Washington, 180 miles north of Blue River. While he’s finally gotten a building permit approved, he’s still a ways yet from returning.

“Within a year from now,” chuckled Baker. “I think that there’s just going to be a turnover of people. Some will not come back, it’s just too much to go through. It’s just not worth it for them, but I think other people will come in. It’s still an attractive place to be.”

There are those who’ve had enough, though. Dana Burwell lives in the neighboring town of Leaburg and knows of 10 people in his circle who’ve lost homes to the Holiday Farm Fire.

Brian Bull
Dana Burwell, at a September "spill drill" event outside Springfield.

“A lot of the people that I went to school with have just decided that they don’t have the energy or the effort to rebuild now,” he said. “They want to move closer to their kids and be closer to their grandkids, and they can just buy a house with their insurance money somewhere else and not have to go through all this long, drawn-out process of trying to clean up their lots and then get all the permits and then try and find builders. Builders are very hard to find right now. And it’s just emotionally draining to go through all that effort to try and come back to the same area.”

Burwell himself plans to stick around. Next April he’ll mark 45 years as a battalion chief for McKenzie Fire & Rescue. Many residents stay for the sense of community and the natural beauty the valley has, even after the fire rendered much of its forests black, spindly remnants across barren hillsides.

Brian Bull
Once a lush and densely forested hillside, this patch of land in Blue River will take time to regrow vegetation and heal. Despite the vast destruction of the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, interest in the area’s real estate is strong.

Despite the fire, the area remains popular

A recent analysis by Judy Casad of Windermere Real Estate shows that while lack of inventory has brought down sales of residential Blue River properties by more than 14%, the average active price is up by nearly 16%. And days on the market went from 136 to 50 days.

In the period of November 2020 to November 2021, Casad said vacant land sales rocketed up 262%, and average prices went up 93%.

“So it’s really spiked the attention for folks thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to buy one of these pieces of land where a home has been impacted by the fire, and I’m going to build my own dream house or my dream vacation home,’” Casad said.

“So it’s actually increased the demand for the McKenzie River.”

More potential growth seen in development of riverside facility

Others say an economic driver is on the horizon. Oregon Democratic state senator Floyd Prozanski supports a new educational facility called the McKenzie River Discovery Center. Prozanski and other advocates say once built, it would draw as many as 50,000 visitors a year and generate $7 million to the region, including Blue River.

“This will be one of those springboards of really getting people back into the valley upriver,” said Prozanski. “Doing hikes, the mountain biking that’s available up there, you’ve got of course the various falls for people for trekking. Then of course hotels, restaurants, all of that’s going to benefit.”

The immediate catch is that even if funding and support come through, the site wouldn’t open until 2025. Prozanski acknowledged that for a community like Blue River, those rewards seem especially distant.

“The encouragement is just looking at what they’ve already done for themselves and their community, and their families, their friends. There is a particular type of individual who lives in these types of communities and they want to be back there. At least the individuals I’ve talked to.”

As town rebuilds, long-timers ask: Who’s coming back to Blue River?

If Blue River’s original inhabitants stay away, new people drawn to the wilderness haven who can readily afford the real estate could move in. They would not have the history or familiarity that long-timers including Melanie Stanley have. She fears that would forever change the character of the riverside community she’s loved and cared for over 30 years.

“It will not be about community, it will not be the heart of the McKenzie,” said Stanley, her voice shaking. “It will not be anything close to what it’s been or what people think it should be. It will be commercialized, it will be gentrified. It will be…not Blue River.”

Stanley draws hope from 27-year-old Samantha Winningham, whom she helped raise and considers family. Winningham, a high school volleyball coach and volunteer firefighter, worked in Stanley’s liquor store. She fought the wildfire that consumed her town, and as a result, had no time to evacuate her home and lost everything.

Brian Bull
Samantha Winningham, near Viribus sculpture.

“I remember it being a lot of crying and throwing up over the guardrail,” laughed Winningham.

But Winningham told KLCC that she plans to come back and rebuild with her daughter, fiancé, and their two cats. They’re all currently staying in a trailer up at a friend’s place in Rainbow, up Highway 126.

“I always used to tell people that, ‘Why would I want to live anywhere else because I live where people want to vacation.’” said Winningham, with a big smile. “And I think that that’s still kind of true.”

Winningham is focused more on the future, and now works with the non-profit Cascade Relief Team that’s coordinated a lot of cleanup efforts across the community.

There is no formal, organized campaign to get Blue River’s original residents back. But standing a few paces away from Viribus the Phoenix, Winningham is optimistic that many locals will eventually come home.

“I think they're just not sure what direction to go, so as people like us that are moving home and rebuilding businesses and homes, and setting the stage, I think it'll make it easier for other people to feel like they can do the same.”

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.