Detroit Lake

After the Fire 1: Scarred Landscape

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

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.


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. 


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.