Fred Swanson

Private lives of the trees

September's Holiday Farm Fire decimated some areas of forest while others escaped relatively unscathed. Photographer David Paul Bayles lovingly documents the surviving trees.


It’s a chilly December morning when I pull into the parking lot tucked along the McKenzie Highway. David Paul Bayles is already here, sorting camera equipment in his truck for our upcoming exploration. We are soon joined by Fred Swanson, who will be our guide and mentor today. A retired Forest Service scientist, Swanson has been working on local forest issues since the 1970s, as a field scientist and research leader in the Long-Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) program at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River (where he and Bayles collaborated in 2018). He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Northwest ecosystems, and the McKenzie corridor in particular. Now in his mid-70s Swanson is as spry and curious as ever. As he begins tromping through the forest, Bayles and I must double our step to keep up. 

We are in the heart of the McKenzie valley, and nothing looks like it did earlier this year: September’s Holiday Farm Fire laid a path of destruction right down the valley’s gut, starting at the eponymous Holiday Farm Resort, then sweeping downwind to eventually incinerate over 170,000 acres. The damage was not uniform. Instead, the fire burned in patchwork fashion depending on forest type, density, grade, defensibility, and a degree of cruel luck. In the communities nestled along highway 126, intact homes sit adjacent to charred waste lots. From our meeting point along the river we can see huge swaths of blackened hillside. But there are also many nearby groves which appear largely intact, at least in their upper stories above the scorch line.