After the Fire 1: Scarred Landscape

Looking back: A devastating 2020 fire leaves ashes where the Santiam Canyon and its cultural life once thrived.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The year 2020 has been unlike any in recent memory, piling uncertainty upon uncertainty and disaster upon disaster. It’s included a devastating wildfire season across the West, including a massive September fire that destroyed forests and towns in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon, where a thriving arts and crafts scene had grown up. In the first of two stories for ArtsWatch, writer and photographer Dee Moore turns a lens on the ash and ruin of the fire’s charred aftermath. In tomorrow’s Part 2, we hear from two of the canyon’s artisans – a logger-turned-painter and a luthier/community radio station manager – about what might come next.


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DEE MOORE


The light of false dawn barely erased the shadows and gave me few, if any clues, of the extent of the wildfire’s destruction as I drove up into the Santiam Canyon on November 15, two months after the Beachie Creek and Lionsgate fires had merged to create the Santiam Fire.

I had spent many hours at the high school in Mill City, in the Cascade foothills southeast of Salem, covering community events there and in Lyons, Gates, Detroit, and Idanha for the local paper. Many of the picturesque locations I discovered while working as a journalist would later become backdrops for my photography.

I had never witnessed a wildfire or viewed the aftermath of its devastation. I did not know what to expect. In places the fire had appeared to follow a road or highway, racing along unimpeded as it searched for something to feed its hunger. The air still smelled of burned wood and ash. Everything seemed to be layered in a patina of sepia. A cloud of brown seemed to coat the sky.

I got out of my car and walked down Little North Fork Road, looking for landmarks I would recognize. The signs indicating day-use parks were burned, warped, the paint melted off the metal. The parks themselves were unrecognizable. Nothing looked familiar. I reached over to touch a burned tree and the wood felt soft and spongy and gave way beneath my hand. 


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


A drive into a Detroit neighborhood was a look at the randomness of the fire path. Here it hopscotched about, burning several homes but leaving others. The fire had raced along the North Santiam River’s banks and climbed the sheer canyon cliffsides. In the midst of all this burn, green trees, grass, moss, and shrubs were left unaffected.

The fire’s toll was visible in burned homes and businesses, gutted cars, and melted metal bones of former structures. Piles of burned logs were harvested and stacked in any available space along roadsides. Signage posted on residential lots indicated which locations were ready for clearing and rebuilding. Other homemade signs warned looters to stay away from what was left of hearth and home.

Sunrise over burned trees on Little North Fork Road.

The damage along the Santiam was only part of a much larger devastation that swept across the American West and hit much of rural and wild Oregon with ferocity, burning more than a million acres in the state and destroying more than 4,000 Oregon homes. The fires crept perilously close to major population centers, and brought ruin to several smaller towns in almost every section of the state. The combined Santiam Fire would eventually destroy more than 1,500 structures and leave very little of note in Detroit and Gates. Idanha, Mill City, and Lyons ended up with varying amounts of damage as the wildfire swept down the canyon. The fire killed five people. One person remains missing.

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The impact of the devastation in Gates was evident from Highway 22. Gates was once a thriving community of artists, many of whom had retired and were now pursuing second careers in the arts. Painters, luthiers, artisans, craft workers and jewelry makers made their homes there. Very little of the town remains now; just relics of structures so unrecognizable that it is difficult to identify what they once were, homes or businesses.

Yet everywhere I looked green was visible, birds were singing, property was being prepared for new construction, fundraisers were being advertised and people were living. Out of destruction comes beauty; or to paraphrase Robert Browning, the sun sets to rise again.

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The shell of a car among remains of a home on Little North Fork Road.
Aftermath of the fire at the same home on Little North Fork Road.

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Burned tree on the bank of the Little North Fork River.

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Remains of a campground on Detroit Lake.
Burned sign from a convenience store in Detroit Lake. All that was left of the store were the sign, metal poles, gas pumps, and ice coolers.
Burned business in Detroit Lake.

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The shadow of a structure in Gates, with trucks and birds. So many of the buildings in the community were incinerated, making it impossible to identify what they once were.
A burned-out fire truck in Gates. This one shocked me; I did not think fire trucks could burn.
The remains of a burned building in Gates are now home to ravens and crows.
Foraging among the ashes beneath the remaining bricks.
Nothing speaks of domesticity like a stackable washer and dryer. To me this image is heartbreaking. It defines the loss of a home.
The skeleton of a fence around a burned-out structure in Gates.

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Burned trees towering over the cut trees at the side of road illustrate how devastating the fire was to the forest.

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The twisted frame of a park bench in Gates stands among the rubble of a building.

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A cabin at the Oak Park Motel in Gates, revealing how the fire climbed the walls.
Oak Park Motel’s melted sign has become a symbol of the fire’s intense heat.
The warping of the walls: another cabin at the Oak Park Motel.

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In Gates a chimney rises, solitary survivor amid the destruction.

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