White River WildFire
Nine out of ten forest fires are caused by humans.
Only you can prevent forest fires.—Smokey Bear, (born 1944) American Black Bear, Campaign Icon
In the spring of 2020, as the Covid Pandemic was just emerging, my husband and I were working around the clock to resettle my Dad into assisted living. It was an exhausting time. Three months later, Dad was in his new apartment. He made new friends quickly, and the staff fell in love with him. Dad was happy, and we were happy for him.
As summer heated up, so too did peoples tempers that erupted in civil unrest and lawlessness that plagued the inner city streets across the nation. If that wasn’t enough, we were about to enter a heatwave that would turn Oregon’s forests into a tinder box.
In August, and not far from home, lightning sparked the White River Fire on the south-side of Mount Hood. In the not so far distance, we saw white clouds of smoke rise like oven-baked bread in an otherwise lapis sky. Communities southeast of Mount Hood prepared to evacuate. Firefighters from all around fought the blaze that tragically claimed the life of one pilot whose helicopter went down.
At the start of September, conditions were crackling dry. As the White River Fire raged on, a weather report came in, and it wasn’t good. A hot, downslope, East Wind was forecasted west of the Cascades. A rare, and dangerous weather event. The fire danger was off the charts! Of more than twenty years of mountain living, this was a first for us. While the possibility of a wildfire had always played in the backs of our minds, it was now at the forefront. Every community was on edge.
As forecasted, the East Wind started blowing, the air turned bone-dry and hotter, and then it happened. Twenty-eight miles south, a new fire exploded! It would become the Riverside Fire, started by arson. A devastating forest fire that would grow to unimaginable proportions and displace thousands, with us among them.
With forecasted winds that could reach 70 to 80 moh, and for fear our trees might come down, we packed our bags and stayed a night in town. Returning home the next morning, we were relieved to find all the trees still standing. Thinking that the worst was behind us, an updated forecast indicated things would only get worse. Stoked by high winds, the Riverside Fire was now out of control, and spreading fast. Mountains and valleys were consumed with thick yellow and orange smoke. The air felt sickly hot. Portland General Electric announced it was shutting off the power grid to prevent sparks on the lines from falling trees and branches. They said it would be down for a week; it ended up being two.
Riverside Forest Fire Evacuation
Leaving our home was a tough decision, so we decided to stay. We lasted three days. Without electricity, no phone service, no fans, no running water, and no septic system, we had to leave. Dad was safe he’d already been evacuated. That evening, by headlamp and flashlight, we gathered our things–documents, my journals, gear, laptop, books, photo albums, my mother’s ashes, and our late son’s box of keepsakes. Because of a bold sow bear roaming our woods, we cautiously loaded the bins into the pickup, locked the house, and with heavy hearts fled the mountains into the unknown.
In the city, trying to find a place to stay within a 300 mile radius was looking more dire by the minute. With so many evacuations, places were filling fast. The few vacancies we found we rejected, refusing price gouging. It wasn’t until late evening, driving unfamiliar smoke-filled roads that we found an Inn. We took the last room they had; an overpriced space the size of a walk-in-closet. It was miserably hot, stuffy, and cramped, the air conditioning barely worked. A faint whiff of smoke seeped through the windows. It was awful! I just wanted the night to be over with. Exhausted, I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.
I woke up early the next morning, complaining . . . We can’t stay here another day. “Don’t worry, we won’t have to,” Chris said. “I booked us two weeks at the coast.” We couldn’t leave fast enough. There was no sunrise to greet us, only yellow clouds of smoke that hung like fog across the distant farm fields. Only when we reached the summit of the Coast Range, did the air clear. We rolled the windows down simultaneously starved for a breath of fresh air. It smelled cool and earthy, of humus and evergreen. It was intoxicating.
At the coast, we settled into a comfortable, spacious room we would call home for the next fourteen days. We didn’t have an ocean view, but there was a lovely field. Mornings and evenings were serenaded with birdsong. Grasses sparkled with dew, and there was a hint of brininess in the air. While smoke and fog dulled the sunsets in their place a maple tree outside our window was every bit as vibrant. We let nothing spoil our time here, and made each day count.
Autumn Maple outside our window
Edge of the Tide at Cape Lookout
Sitka Spruce, Cape Meares
Cape Meares, 249 feet above the sea
Cape Meares Lighthouse (built 1889)
Brown Pelicans, Netarts Bay
Masks: His and Hers, socially distanced 6 inches apart
Time passed too quickly. Leaving the Coast Range Mountains, we drew the last clean breaths of fresh air and rolled up the windows. The smoke thickened and consumed us as we entered the Willamette Valley. It was as though we had never left. Although we didn’t speak of it, we wondered what we would return to. Did we still have a forest? Did we still have a home?
Arriving home, we breathed sighs of relief. The forest hadn’t burnt, and our home was safe. But, the smoke still lingered as it would for weeks. Everything looked just as we left it, except for the bear-proof trash can. The sow had dragged it halfway up the driveway, and despite her best efforts, could not get to the contents. Frustrated, she signed her work with claws and toothmarks. The bear situation now seemed minuscule compared to what we’d been through. Our biggest relief was knowing our families were safe. Our home was safe, and the power grid was back on. Unlike so many others that lost so much, our hearts and prayers went out to them. Our only loss was inside the fridge and freezer, and insurance took care of that. We felt incredibly blessed and were ever-so thankful.
The Riverside Fire was started by arson on September 4, 2020. The fire became the fourth largest in Oregon that destroyed 138,054 acres of forest, along with farmland, and structures. The fire displaced tens of thousands of people and livestock and took its toll on wildlife. There were deaths and missing persons, and burglars that targeted evacuated homes. Weeks turned into months. First Responders worked around the clock until on December 4, 2020, the Riverside Fire was 100 percent contained. As far as I know, no one has been charged for the crime.
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