This beautiful green haven I call home is burning down. We are choking on smoke and watching as the physical reminders of our past and our adventures sail away on the wind, nothing more than ash when it departs. My home, this place that I have spent my whole life, is awash in flames. We are fighting; our first responders are working tirelessly, using every method available to save the gorge. But we don’t know how long it will take or what we will lose in the midst of this battle.
A forest fire is burning 4 miles from my dad’s home. Yesterday I spent my day driving through the smoke and the ash to get there. I went through my childhood home to determine what was worth saving and what wasn’t. Something you never realize until you are in that situation: very few things actually matter at that point. You grow numb, clinical. You have to if you want to get the job done, if you want to find the family photo albums and the afghan your great grandmother made that used to sit on your favorite chair in your bedroom. You will not cry about the baby ornaments and childhood stuffed animals; you won’t cry about the knee-high carved bear you named Otis- the one that stood sentinel over your front door and was dressed up for every holiday; you won’t think about the memories and keepsakes you left behind until later. No, you will not cry, not now.
But eventually the totality of the situation will strike you, eventually you will feel it all. You will cry; in a few hours, in a day, in a week- it will hit you, what you had to do; you had to take a lifetime of memories and condense them down into a little box. You had to get in the car and leave behind everything you ever worked for. You turn your back on your home and wonder if it will be the last time. You flee the only place that you ever truly felt safe- because it can’t be that anymore. You ache and you hurt, but you put your foot on the accelerator, you square your jaw and you drive. Nothing has ever felt like home since I left there; no house has lived up to that name. It will always be my home, the place I grew up, the sanctuary where I keep my heart tucked away.
I went to my dad’s house and talked about evacuation plans. I forced promises about timeframes and warning signals, routes and procedures, back-up plans and defensible spaces. Because he wasn’t ready to leave, not until he had to. In that moment; I didn’t give a damn about the house. I would individually burn every single picture myself if it would guarantee his safety. He’s a firefighter; he knows this world, he belongs to it. Fires are in his blood, and this is his home. He wasn’t scared; the fire hadn’t jumped the ridge yet- he was still safe. His home was still safe.
The night before he was outside with a hose spraying down the house as ashes and burning embers fell from the sky. He had sprinklers going on the roof. He even managed to jury-rig the pump from the pond to keep the sprinklers on even if we lost power. He took every precaution to ensure that the house had a defensible space, should that need arise. Those aren’t words you ever want to hear. The argument about leaving is not one you ever want to fight. Not while the smoke is burning your lungs, not while the ashes are falling around you, not while you pack up the car with those few things you don’t want to lose.
My heart is breaking. I can’t stay away from the news, hoping for an update as the fire grows. I’m deciphering wind reports like they contain the secret to the universe. I’m scared. That’s what this is; I’m scared and I’m broken inside because this is my home; these forests are my memories, these trails are where I grew up. These people are my past. And for me: this is real. This is the fear that we all pray we will never experience. Your home is supposed to keep you safe. But what do you do when you can’t keep it safe?
I watched my neighbors calmly pack their horses, their pets, their belongings into whatever trailers they could get their hands on. I watched them drive away, hoping they would be able to come back.
I’m angry and I’m hurt; this whole thing started because of a couple teenagers playing with firecrackers. The first day 153 hikers were trapped on Eagle Creek trail. They had to shelter near a waterfall overnight. The next morning they had to hike 14 miles to get out. Every single one was rescued. We got lucky. But the fire kept burning. An entire town was evacuated. And then another, and then then another as the flames burned out of control, taking this beautiful country with it.
Monday night it did something that sent shockwaves through my soul; it jumped the Columbia river and nestled itself within Washington’s borders- quite a feat by its own right. At 2:00 in the morning, while my dad was running around putting out embers that had managed to burn all the way to his home; four miles away one of those embers fell from the sky and landed on a wooded mountain. It caught. The flames grew, and people were forced from their homes without warning in the dead of night.
Two states are on fire because a couple of 15 year olds didn’t understand that it’s bad to play with fire in the woods during a dry summer. It seems every time I check the reports, I’m hearing of a new area being threatened, another place I’ve been in gone. Wildfires live up to their name; they are not easily tamed, no matter how hard you work.
These are a few pictures of Oneonta Tunnel, a historic tunnel that was originally built for vehicle use back in 1914. It had since been reopened for pedestrian use only and is along a hike I did with friends a few months ago. The bottom photos are what it looked like that day I was there. The upper right photo is the night that it burned. The upper left is the charred remains. It’s gone, and so are the beautiful forests that surrounded it.
So far, in spite of all of our losses, we are lucky. We are fortunate because of the men and women who have responded to our calls for help. They have come out and they have worked without complaint. My dad’s house is still safe as I write this because of the 75 men and women who have held the fire line at bay and protected us. It is safe because of the people out on patrol for spot fires that they can extinguish before they take root. I am thankful. I can never repay this debt.
Our amazing and historic Multnomah falls and lodge are still standing because of the tireless efforts of these people- many of them volunteered to help.
this is a picture before the fire; few photos are circulating of what it looks like now. All reports describe a tough battle that the firefighters ultimately won. I hear there is even still some green left, a phenomenal fear, given what they were up against.
They have been doing an amazing job against a tremendous foe. We are sad for what has been lost, but without them our pain would be far greater. So to them I say thank you. From the bottom of this grieving heart, I say thank you. My dad is a firefighter, I understand that sacrifice, I understand the struggles of your family. And today I finally understand the people on the other side; today I am one of them.
To my beautiful home; I’m sorry. There will be more memories, there will be recovery. Thank you for what you gave us. Thank you for this beautiful place I have been privileged to call home. I’m crying for you.
If you’ve ever watched the movie ‘Wild’- this last picture might look familiar. The Bridge of the Gods in where it ended; watch those last scenes again- it will be many years before it looks like that once more.
This is not how I remember you; full of fire and heartache. To all of my beautiful places; I know some are gone, I know some still stand, and others I have yet to hear about…you’ve helped me soothe my soul more times than I can count…you are my home, forever and always. This is how I will always remember you…