Unthinkable devastation, discarded terrariums, patient convoys, Canadian jays, lone motels, hopscotching fires, environmental dichotomies & the Cascades.
It is October 13, 2020, and my husband and I are waiting in our car at Mongold State Park—a boat dock and a few picnic tables—in the Cascade mountains of Oregon. It is one month and five days after the Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires swept through these mountains, leaving unthinkable devastation to the forest and the people who call this place home.
Highway 22, the only direct route through this area, is still closed except for three times a day when a pace car leads convoys in and out. We are waiting for this vehicle to lead the 11 a.m. group gathered here down the mountain and into the Willamette Valley, back to our home in Portland. I roll my shoulders in an attempt to release the tension.
We have been here before.
Cars, pickups, RVs, vans and trucks get in line behind us. I wonder how many of them are canyon residents who spent the day sifting through what is left of their homes. In front of us, a beefed-up black pickup pulling a trailer with an ATV idles. There are two bumper stickers, one on the truck and one on the trailer, promoting one of the presidential candidates, and a gun rack in the rear window. We stay a car length behind.
We have been here before. We were among the last group to be evacuated from this parking lot in a different convoy the day the fires swept through. After three aborted rescue plans, the Forest Service found a circuitous path through back roads that led us and about three dozen other vehicles to safety.
We own a cabin, one of seventy, on Forest Service land near here. Last week, we got the green light to return. This is the first time we have been back.
They hovered above us, waiting for a break in the wind and smoke, but it never came…
Last time we waited at Mongold, four weeks ago, the wind was gusting fifty to sixty miles per hour. As the fires closed in around us, the orange sky and the thick smoke made it feel otherworldly. Today, it is drenching rain and foggy. With the mist and fog lacing itself through blackened trees and hillsides, the look is different, but the feeling is the same.
Looking in the mirror at the line of vehicles behind us, I remember some of the people who’d been in the evacuation convoy with us. There was the family with the small children who ran in circles waiting for the rescue helicopters. We were instructed to lie face down on the pavement and close our eyes when they landed. They hovered above us, waiting for a break in the wind and smoke, but it never came, and eventually they flew back to the National Guard headquarters in Salem, fifty miles away. The couple who lovingly set two terrariums to the side of the parking lot. One held a pet snake, the other a tarantula. They lived in Idanha, a town in the midst of the fire, and did not know if they would have a home to return to. They doubted their pets would be welcome if they had to go to a shelter, so they were setting them free, hoping they would survive. I thought about the man who’d arrived in a boat and planned to wait it out on the lake, but was almost out of gas. And the couple who rode in on bicycles, exhausted, struggling to breathe. Are they now all okay? Are they back home?
The convoys coming into the mountains assemble in a little town called Gates, which was hit hard by the fire. Next to where we waited last weekend for the pace car was a burned-out home—one of so, so many we saw. There were construction workers there with a backhoe, scooping up debris and dumping it into a truck bed. There was also an older couple bent over, sifting through what remained. The owners, I expect. The house next to it and the house behind it both stand untouched. A friend sent me something from a social media site that read, “The ash falling from the sky is what remains of the Pine, the Mahonia, the Vine maples. It contains someone’s cherished belongings, irreplaceable items, and what remains of animals, both wild and pets who could not run fast enough.” Feeling like a voyeur, I looked away.
Parts of the forest were not burned, but much of it is so devastated that it’s hard to find words to describe it. There are hundreds of burned trees stacked along the road, waiting to be hauled away. Large sections of hillsides are blackened, including the rock ledges. The fire hopscotched around, and many times we saw one home burned, or an entire area, but the home next to it was fine. Or an outbuilding destroyed, but not the house. Or the trees and shrubs scorched in a yard, but the house was unharmed. Burned-out vehicles are scattered throughout. At one point, when we were stopped on the highway waiting for a truck loaded with logs to pass, I rolled down the window to snap a photo. The smell of charred wood filled the car.
Our cabin is five miles from the town of Detroit, where the fire swirled and raged, claiming countless homes and businesses. The post office, one restaurant and a grocery store are what is left on the main street. Piles of dirty ash and burnt metal are what remains of the rest of the businesses: a motel, another market, city hall, the fire station, a couple of eateries, two marinas. The bar with a huge chainsaw and an effigy hanging from the ceiling with the words “Tree hugger number 1” pinned to its chest.
It is estimated seven hundred businesses and homes were lost in this canyon. Five people died. Call it a miracle, call it the luck of the wind speed and direction, call it the heroic effort of fire crews who spent many days defending the structures or call it a combination of all the above, but somehow all seventy cabins survived. But it was close. Fire came within six hundred feet of our cabin, and within ten feet of the cabin just six down from ours. We cannot see the burn from our windows or deck, but our neighbors can.
The dichotomy of driving through so much devastation, then into the lush green of the cabin tract, was so striking, we found it hard to reconcile the two. Sitting on the sofa, drinking coffee in front of a blazing fire in the wood stove, listening to the patter of the rain on the metal roof, it was hard to determine what was real.
Feeling like a voyeur, I looked away.
But it’s not only people who lost their homes. One morning, we walked up the hill to the burn zone. There were four birds, Canadian jays, who clustered and hovered around us, landing a few feet away, staring and cocking their heads like a dog might. I felt as confused and traumatized in that moment as I imagined they must have felt.
It was fourteen years yesterday we took possession of the cabin. In all that time, we have not forgotten for a single moment how fortunate we are to have it. Seeing how close we came to losing it made it especially sweet to be there for this anniversary. Sitting on the sofa, thinking of the couple sifting through the debris in Gates, and of all the others who were not as lucky as we, I said a prayer of gratitude and hope.
As we drove away from the cabin, I turned my head for one more look, seeking reassurance that it was still there. We were silent, each deep in our own thoughts as we traversed the windy road between the cabins and Highway 22. Wiping a smudge from the window, a glimmer of green caught my eye. Surrounded by scorched limbs, ash and blackened rock, three tiny bracken ferns were poking out of the ground.
Hope: one inch high.
Galen Perry was born and raised in a town of one hundred people in north-central Montana, one of eight children. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his partner of twenty-three years. In addition to writing, he is a watercolorist and avid gardener. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Marek Piwnicki