© 2024 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For wildfire-ravaged communities, recovery is a slow burn

People pushing fire engine into station.
Brian Bull
As part of a grand opening celebration, fire fighters with the Upper McKenzie Rural Fire Protection Dept. push their engine into the new fire station in Blue River.

Hotter temperatures mean wildfire season is underway across many parts of the U.S. And while news crews tend to put away the mics and cameras once the firefighters leave, for residents in communities that have burned, the repercussions continue long after the flames are out.

Take the quiet rural community of Blue River, population of about 800. Almost four years ago, the Holiday Farm Fire nearly burned the town off the map. The path to rebuilding has been a lengthy and expensive one for residents.

Hazmat workers examining burned down house.
Brian Bull
Weeks after the Holiday Farm Fire, EPA workers in haz-mat gear examine the ruins of a Blue River House in October 2020.

In town, there’s a pristine new fire station with shiny gray siding and a sloping black roof. It sits in a valley flanked by hills covered with thousands of charred trees that used to be lush fir and pine forest. When the Holiday Farm Fire raged through here, it destroyed the old station.

Recently, the community dedicated a new $3 million fire station, rebuilt with the help of state grants. A group of nearly a dozen firefighters pushed a new engine into the garage. It’s a widespread tradition dating back to the days of horse-drawn engines.

Once the engine was pushed into place, crew members high-fived and hugged each other. It’s symbolic of how Blue River locals have responded since losing much of their town: unite, pull (or push) together.

“You know, it’s a piece at a time,” said Melanie Stanley, a longtime resident and fire department board member. As people lined up for cake and nachos at the grand opening, Stanley ticked off the challenges to rebuild her town.

Sprinkler wetting down gravel path.
Brian Bull
A contractor with Meili Construction uses a CAT to push a sprinkler through the construction site for the rebuilt Lazy Days Mobile Home & RV park, to keep down dust.

“Between supply chains, county building codes, permits being issued, contractors not being available because of the number of structures that were being built all simultaneously, if you name it, we’ve probably faced it,” she said.

Progress inches along. The new post office opened three years ago, and a health clinic and library are opening this fall. And up the highway, crews are rebuilding the Lazy Days Mobile Home and RV park. 80 residents - many working-class families - fled during the Holiday Farm Fire. Every single home was leveled.

The park is now owned by a nonprofit called Homes for Good. As construction workers pounded in steel stakes to mark the path of a new gutter, executive director Jacob Fox recalled how the park looked in the aftermath of the fire.

“When I first came back - getting a little emotional here - there was basically just metal chassis of homes that were burned, completely broken, dolls, tricycles," said Fox. "Everything was just scorched.”

This summer, 20 modular homes and ten tiny houses will be installed at the park. The project cost $12 million, funded by a mix of state, federal and local dollars. And the goal is that most residents will own their home, with special priority.

“We would love for someone that was displaced from the Lazy Days Mobile Home Park to return to this community,” said Fox. “And I personally look forward to welcoming those folks back.”

Man standing by sign for mobile home park.
Brian Bull
Jacob Fox, exec. dir. for Homes for Good, stands by the only part of the Lazy Days Mobile Home & RV park that wasn't destroyed by the Holiday Farm Fire: the colorful sign.

How many will return is anyone’s guess. Many displaced locals moved in with relatives, sheltered in hotels, or left the community altogether.

Still, it’s one thing to rebuild city facilities and put up new houses for local residents…but Blue River relies on tourism, and the community has worked to convince travelers to make a stop here.

“They should stop in each one of these communities and generate support for the whole area,” said Ken Engelman. He heads up the McKenzie River Chamber of Commerce, and has lived here since 1976.

Fishing, rafting, and hiking are but a few draws. Engelman says there’s a new attraction on the horizon.

“The old McKenzie Fish Hatchery site, which is now called the McKenzie River Discovery Center, which is going to be a world class attraction, that is going to be coming on board next year.”

That means locals who are waiting for another economic boost will need to hold on a little longer.

Copyright 2024, 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.
Related Content