As Ashley Andersen watched her greenhouse take flight, picked up by the windstorm raging outside her Otis home, she wondered if she should pack a go-bag before tucking into bed for the night.
“Growing up military, they teach you to do that,” said Andersen, an illustrator who had lived in Otis as a child and been back less than two years. “Anytime you think you should have a go-bag, you should just do it.”
Andersen and her boyfriend, Jason Taylor, were among the hundreds who escaped into the night as the Labor Day windstorm howled and — unbeknownst to them — flames licked at the surrounding forest.
In the end, the Echo Mountain Complex Fire would ravage more than 2,500 acres, destroying nearly 300 homes, hundreds of buildings, and leaving the little town of Otis, roughly four miles east of Lincoln City, a charred no-man’s land.
Minor by comparison, but nonetheless painful, was the cancellation — again — of the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s annual gala, already revamped once to accommodate rules for COVID-19. But that disappointment yielded some good news, as would-be gala attendees donated the price of their prepurchased tickets, inspiring what was to become the Echo Mountain Arts Fund. That sum in turn was bolstered by a donation from the Oneatta Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
Earlier this month, the cultural center awarded nearly $14,000 in the first round of grants from the fund to 11 Otis-area artists, including Andersen. Fundraising is continuing with an online auction. Items up for bid include a glass phoenix made from Echo Mountain fire ash by Kelly Howard at Lincoln City Glass Studio, and a quilt by Otis artist Pat Lay will be raffled. The online auction ends at 6 p.m. Feb. 13.
As she sat wondering about that go-bag, Andersen suspected she had waited too long when she heard a crack and crash as a tree fell onto the roof just over Taylor’s head. It was time to go.
As the couple drove to safety, Andersen saw trees falling everywhere — in front of them, behind them — and a downed powerline whipping in the wind. They were nearly in Depoe Bay before they found cell coverage. She called 911 to report the powerline and that she hadn’t had a chance to turn off the gas at her home. “Someone should go check,” she said. Later, she would learn that a first responder to her property saw the glow of flames on top of Echo Mountain.
Neighbors later told Andersen they heard her on the emergency radio, followed by the firefighter’s report of flames, and knew it was time to get their animals and go. “A lot of people said, ‘We heard you call that in; we’re sure glad we did,’” Andersen said. “In the morning, we didn’t know if we had a house.”
It was nine days before they learned the brutal truth. Gone were the house, greenhouse, two cars, a boat, her art, and their garden. The couple managed to save their three dogs, but lost their cat, Kava, in the fire.
Andersen and Taylor are staying in a motel room; it’s small and cramped, but a roof over their heads. But in February, thanks to the Echo Mountain grant, Andersen will again have a studio. She’s been awarded space in the basement of the former DeLake School (now home to the Lincoln City Cultural Center) to use through April, as well as $1,000 to replace supplies. She expects to feel right at home.
Andersen said she attended an afterschool day-care center in the building from 2002 to 2004. “It was the coolest part of living here.” The kids visited rivers, saw otters, and “the people who worked there were awesome,” she said. “Being able to go back is nostalgic and really cool. I have good memories there. It’s like a comfort place.”
Also benefiting from the Echo Mountain grants is painter Nancy Jean Chase. When she heard the reports of high fire danger in September, she wasted no time in loading up her cats and getting out.
“I told my neighbor if she sees flames anywhere to call me,” Chase recalled. “I put the cats in the car … filled it with last-minute things I thought I might need, like kitty litter.”
Chase spent that night sleeping in her car at the Connie Hansen garden (where she is on the board of directors) in Lincoln City. When she got the message at 4 a.m. that everything north of North Bank Road was being evacuated, “I said ‘I’m out of here.’ I drove through the night. You could see the flames up in the sky … like Dante’s Inferno.”
For a week, Chase awaited news of her home. Firefighters saved her home and cherished garden, but they couldn’t save her studio. Insurance will cover lost materials, though there’s no recovering the 93 paintings destroyed, and it won’t cover full replacement of the studio. She plans to use the $2,000 grant for that.
“It was the most beautiful building I’d even seen,” Chase said of the 200-square-foot cedar studio. “It was just a fabulous place for all my materials, all my work. It included a guest bed.… it was like the goal that I’ve always worked toward to have my own studio.”
She knows she is one of the more fortunate, and yet, there’s no denying it’s been a rough year.
“The frustration of not having a space to paint is just … so difficult,” Chase said. “This year has been so horrible in so many ways, between the plague and the politics and everyone’s misery. It’s hard to dig myself into a happy frame of mind.”
But she tries.
“Fire went up each side and around the house; it totally surrounded the house,” Chase said. “But I can’t complain about anything. The house wasn’t damaged. I love this house. The firefighters saved it.”
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.