In a state filled with beautiful scenery, the McKenzie River Valley is one of the most striking, a crown jewel in a tiara of sparkling diamonds.
An offshoot of the winding Willamette River that beats through the heart of the state of Oregon, it is hard not to imagine one is in a deleted scene of The Lord of the Rings while paddling its waters or hiking through the foggy forests that crowd the riverbanks. Tall pines and firs stand proudly on the river banks, moss hanging from their long branches. Trout and salmon fill the river, their fast bodies darting through from the Pacific ocean to the rivers where they will lay their eggs, sprouting another generation that will feed humans, animals, and plants within this evergreen forest. Mist rises from the river, cold and soft, the way a pillow feels on your cheek on a cold autumn night.
As an angsty teen from Chicago who found herself at the University of Oregon, the Outdoor Program became my second home when I wasn’t studying, working, or at the Coastal Archaeology lab analyzing a never-ending pile of shell midden. The Outdoor Program was an exotic place for me, filled with piles of donated carabiners, endless free Clif Bars at the director’s desk, and all sorts of trips to sign up for, co-op style, on forms on the inner wall. My first experience was a rafting trip down the Lower McKenzie River with my fellow freshman dorm mate, Kathryn.
Man, I was hooked after one trip down that river.
From the chilled air rushing into our lungs as we navigated the Class II and III rapids, to the ospreys angrily yelling at us to stay away from their fish, it was a magical, exhilarating experience, one I could have never have had in my urban-based childhood. From there, I threw myself into kayaking practice in the tiny pool in Gerlinger Hall on Tuesday nights and tried to make sure I was in a river every Saturday morning in the fall and spring.
Though I paddled and dove throughout many of Oregon’s rivers, from the local Willamette River to the roaring waters of the Rogue River, the McKenzie was always my favorite while I studied at the university, with its lush forests, sneaky waves, and pristine waters crowned with gentle mist that always
seemed to pull away in mid-morning, like a bride lifting her veil. Kayaking in its waters was one of the many happy memories I have of my undergraduate years at the University of Oregon, and being able to learn how to navigate this river in a little plastic Waverunner took my senses – dulled from either too much studying, partying, or boyfriend drama – and always knocked new life into them.
The water of the McKenzie is snowmelt, and flows straight from the Cascade Mountains, filling your face with ice-cold water as it splashes through the rapids. However, if you see steam gently trickling out of one of the many craggy cliffs that form the river’s banks, quickly paddle up to it. Many times, you can drop your double-bladed paddle on your boat, press your hands against the mist escaping from the hole in the onyx-colored rock, and feel the soft heartbeat of the world within. For, within Oregon, you are in the Ring of Fire, connected to volcanoes and mountains across the Pacific Rim.
The fire was within the mountains, within the earth.
It was never meant to leave.
But it did.
The McKenzie River, that Tolkien-esque fairyland of my university days, eventually became filled with ash, the trees turned into skeletons, humans and animals killed and made homeless. It became a place of death and slaughter.
And like many disasters, it happened in 2020.
Warnings existed, as they do for all disasters. In this case, the dew point had been dangerously under the regular warnings in 2020. Not just in Oregon, but for the entire western coast of the United States.
Like many wildfires that occur, this fire was man-made – but not in the traditional sense we think of. Unlike the iconic scene in ‘Bambi’, this fire was not started by a casual knocking over of a fire, or a gender reveal gone wrong, as previous fires have consisted of during one of the worst periods of fire in recorded history.
The cause of the fire was simply… drought.
Drought happens when a significant lack of precipitation–such as rain or snow–falls in a region. San Jose State University’s Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center studies this, with a specific focus on dew points in mountains susceptible to wildfires. Because of this prediction, scientists have been accurately able to predict the last few, painful seasons of fire in California. These fires within the Golden State can not be understated – per capita, they are some of the costliest wildfires that our country has faced.
But that’s the thing with the McKenzie River Valley.
It’s a rainforest.
It isn’t supposed to be in a drought, or on fire.
But this is the tale of global climate change, especially in 2020, when fires blazed across the mountains and valleys of the west coast. What normally should be a small incident of fire becomes much larger and more destructive due to the ongoing nature of our changing planet, where dried plants serve as kindle for fires, and whole forests are subsequently set ablaze. Hurricanes come in multiple stages to coastal communities. Tornadoes – normally a summertime occurrence – now happen in December.
And places filled with soft rain are now infernos.
I am years removed from the magic of the Lower McKenzie, but I took its lessons with me as I made my way back to Chicago, where I completed my doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. There, I studied how people learn science outside of the traditional classroom as my dissertation research, a practice I now apply as a program director for the largest outdoor education program in my country and as a reviewer for the National Science Foundation.
What normally should be a small incident of fire becomes much larger and more destructive due to the ongoing nature of our changing planet, where dried plants serve as kindle for fires, and whole forests are subsequently set ablaze.
Forests rise and fall. I watched, with growing sadness, as fires consumed parts of the west coast throughout the last decade. I grimly noticed how places I had lived and traveled to throughout my youth, ranging from Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California to the forests outside of North Cascades National Park in Washington, all were burned.
But none had burned so closely as the Holiday Farm Fire, what the McKenzie River was eventually called.
In my home office in a Chicago suburb, I did what everyone in 2020 did –I scrolled through the internet, my face awash in ugly, hot tears. Watching the McKenzie River burn, I found myself taking short, horrid breaths as firefighters debated on saving historic bridges that often served as guideposts for kayakers, anglers, and all of us who loved that river.
“No,” I whispered to myself, scrolling through updates on social media, “No, no, no.”
I was in denial.
Unbridled, horrid, denial.
The first step of grief, indeed.
I began watching the fire the way I now watch storm data–on a website that updates, in horrid real-time, the effects of the fires. Which towns would be evacuated, and which places would suffer from the inevitable air pollution that fires bring. Friends, colleagues, and long-time acquaintances in the nearby valleys of the McKenzie marked themselves as ‘safe’. Others took pictures of the charred-red, burning sky, a color none of us had seen before.
It had been a place of healing, of magic, of unspoiled beauty.
And it was gone.
2020 took away so much from countless people, and in many ways, it laid bare the bones of so much hidden grief, from the pandemic that filled our morgues to the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. For me, it was a true sense of a loss of agency – that I could do nothing in the face of a burning inferno that destroyed one of the places that had made me, me.
I could march and raise money for Black Lives Matter, and support my African American friends and colleagues in the face of George Floyd’s death.
I could mask up, socially distance, and adhere to CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
I could donate money to, and shop at, small businesses and restaurants to keep them and their employees afloat during a frightening economic downturn.
But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do when fires ripped through the McKenzie River Valley in 2020.
It was where I truly felt hopeless, deep within my bones. No money or words of support could do a thing to stop the fires in this American rainforest.
“Just take one more thing, 2020,” I remember muttering through my tears as I looked at pictures of exhausted firefighters, fishing boats destroyed, the Christmas shop gone, filbert tree groves silent and covered in ash.
“Take it. Take it all.”
Shortly afterward, I was asked to give a presentation at Chicago Learning Exchange, a collaboration unit for out-of-school learning providers. We needed to discuss Chicago’s learning ‘ecosystem’, meaning the places in which education outside of the classroom occurs. For many of us – from museums to park districts – we had been horribly rattled by the events of 2020. Due to the pandemic, our programs had been closed, operations had been halted, many employees laid off, and youth participants scattered, unknowing if they would return.
So, with the Holiday Farm Fire still fresh in my head, I talked about fires at our meeting.
Chicago–the city of my birth, where I live now with my young family–is a city built by fire itself. Though most are familiar with the Great Chicago Fire that burned the city to the ground in 1871, few know about the original people of this region–the Bodwéwadmi, the keepers of the fire. They kept the prairies by setting controlled burns, killing invasive plants and overgrowth, and encouraging the lush berry plants to grow. More importantly, to be done routinely, for the earth and the people who lived on it to heal and grow.
And that’s what is happening now.
Currently, there is a call for more controlled burns within Lane County, which stretches from the Pacific Coast through Eugene to the foothills of the Cascade Range, and other parts of Oregon where brush has grown. This brush, along with dry spells and massive Cascade Mountain winds, can cause these wildfires to happen. The Oregon State Senate has gone as far as putting forward two bills that would set a statewide standard for clearing “defensible space” around homes so they’re less likely to catch fire, and have the Oregon Department of Forestry develop a prioritized plan for selective logging and controlled burning, among a litany of policies comprising a comprehensive wildfire response plan.
Though most are familiar with the Great Chicago Fire that burned the city to the ground in 1871, few know about the original people of this region–the Bodwéwadmi, the keepers of the fire. They kept the prairies by setting controlled burns, killing invasive plants and overgrowth, and encouraging the lush berry plants to grow.
Oregonians are helpful folks, and I love that about the Pacific Northwest. Both Lane County and the cities of Eugene and Springfield set up task forces to evacuate citizens, and fundraisers went to support the Valley in recovery. No small feat, considering over 500 homes were destroyed, and 173,000 acres of forest obliterated from this planet. Perhaps the best is one of the covered bridges that served as a guidepost for us kayakers – the McKenzie Community Bridge – served as a shelter and a place to gather food, water, and information in the aftermath of the fire.
Residents of the McKenzie River Valley are now slowly and painfully rebuilding their lives bit by bit, with a helping hand from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yet, they still have to grapple with tough choices as to what parts of the wilderness can be reopened to outdoorsmen, and what parts have to be given up and decommissioned. But perhaps, looking beyond these false binary choices, as suggested by researches in my alma mater, is to be intentional in restoring the landscape beyond the pre-fire status quo into something more welcoming for native wildlife.
Hiking and guiding still happen on this river, especially as students return to the University of Oregon’s expanding campus, which welcomed its largest freshman class ever in the fall of 2021. The fact that this massive student body holds not only the ability of participating in the wilderness with the help of the Outdoor Program that I’ve taken advantage of so much when I was there, but is snug up against potential fires within the many mountains and valleys that surround the campus, gives me both a sense of hope and dread.
If there is one lesson we have come to terms with over the last two years, it is that disasters are not going away, especially natural ones.
If we are going to live in this world, we must live with the fire, whether we are in the hum of a big city or the song of a silent forest.
Disclaimer: Kristen is recognized as an uncompensated external Science Communication Research Associate by the University of Oregon. The Xylom retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization and the trust of our readers.