Two and a half years later, her voice still haunts me. From the other side of the fence, I hear her yell at her children as they play in the backyard. It’s a sunny day, and my wife and I are riding our bikes on a path that runs right beside this family’s home. We are enjoying a weekend vacation in Ashland, four hours south of our own home in Salem, Oregon. A blissful afternoon, we are all unaware that, just two days later, a fire will race up the path we’re riding on. It will level this entire neighborhood to the ground, including the mobile home we just passed, with the door that just clacked shut. Whole communities in several towns will be completely wiped out by just one fire – one of the many fires about to explode across our state. This particular fire, the Almeda fire, will consume 2,600 homes and three lives. Throughout the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, at least twenty-one fires will each burn more than a thousand acres or cause significant structural damage or death. Over a million acres will burn, 40,000 people will be evacuated, and at least eleven people will be killed.
The day before the Almeda Fire starts racing up the valley – from Ashland to Talent and Phoenix – we begin our drive home, stopping at Diamond Lake to try out the bike path wrapping the shore. We stop at a parking lot to call a child and wish her happy birthday. The sky is a bright blue, the last blue sky I will see for over a week. As we drive three and a half hours over the mountain pass, we begin to see smoke gathering around us. By the time we arrive in the valley to pick up dinner before driving the final hour home, the air is thick and dark. The sky turns red, and we make our way north through smoke, carefully following the cars in front of us, inching forward through a scene that feels like the apocalypse. Up the canyon from our own home, the Lionshead Fire has started roaring from town to town. We later hear about people running door to door, telling neighbors to flee for their lives. We, however, are grateful to arrive at last to a home that seems safe.
When we wake the next morning, the sky is still dark red. The Lionshead Fire continues down the canyon and eventually joins with both the Santiam Fire and the Beachie Creek Fire. I hear of family members losing their home; my stepbrother is evacuated from a small town up the highway. Though it has been unthinkable until now, my wife and I ask each other about the things we would each want to save if we are forced to flee.
The fire is close. My front yard has always been a refuge for me, especially during the pandemic. But my little sanctuary no longer feels safe. Smoke filters through our house and ash falls from the sky. We hear about the Almeda Fire in Talent, and I remember that mother and her children. Another fire, the Thielsen Fire, is raging straight toward Diamond Lake, where we had just been riding our bikes the day before. I wonder if that was the last time we’ll ever go there. Silver Creek Falls, the gem of our valley, is in the trajectory of the Beachie Creek Fire. I pray fervently the fire does not take it. The Echo Mountain Complex Fire starts in the coastal range and forces Lincoln City into partial evacuation. We wonder if we should flee, too . . . stay somewhere else where the air quality isn’t as horrendously bad. But then, we now have fire and smoke on every side, and we have nowhere we could go away from it.
My wife and I stay put. We watch the dark red sky throughout the week that follows. I take a glass jar out to our driveway and sweep together a pile of ashes, relics of everything burning all around us, keepsakes from the forest that was once the home to my soul. Not only have I grown up loving these trees, I have spent much of my adult life hiking and camping among them. We hear a story of a boy and his grandmother, bodies found together in the fire’s wake; a couple standing in a river to survive; a woman so badly burned that her husband did not recognize her. (The boy who died was their son.) The loss is staggering. The days drag on. The first bit of blue sky finally shows itself through the smoke-filled haze. Many people across the city take pictures and post them on Facebook, as if we are collectively looking to the first light of dawn.
It takes me a year to find the courage to go up the canyon and see the forest’s destruction, the destruction of my soul’s home. It breaks my heart every time I go there. Down in Talent and Phoenix, two and a half years after the Almeda Fire, people are still living in FEMA trailers. I wonder how the mother is doing. The land surrounding Diamond Lake is only partially burned, most of it was saved. Though we lost many incredible, beautiful places like Shellburg Falls and Opal Creek, the fire was stopped just inside the boundaries of Silver Creek Falls. I still hug the trees in gratitude every time we hike there.
As I write this and look out my windows, I see through my tears that pink blossoms adorn the trees in our yard against a large patch of blue sky overhead. I do not take these gifts for granted. Those fires took something from me that I will never get back. They took my sense of home and a sense of safety I have never fully recovered. So many places my soul loved all my life are now gone for generations to come.
My wife and I recently hiked a trail that had been familiar to us before the fires raced through. We didn’t recognize it. I place the beauty that once was on my pile of loss, along with my jar of ashes, and wonder how I am ever going to heal from all this. As lucky as I know I am – to still have my loved ones and my home undamaged – the scars of what happened will shape my whole life, just as the green forests once did. I’ve heard there are plants in the forest that only grow after a fire. Amidst all the loss throughout our communities, I pray that is true. ~~~
Sarah Katreen Hoggatt is a writer, poet, workshop leader, and spiritual director whose work is described at sarahkatreenhoggatt.com. She is an independent member of Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.