Oregon wildfires

Siletz Bay Music Festival returns with concert of resilience

Following COVID and devastating wildfires, artistic director Yaacov Bergman felt compelled to recognize the pain, as well as the courage needed to rebuild

After a year of struggling with the fallout from COVID, organizers of the Siletz Bay Music Festival were ready to host the summer concerts once again. But where to begin, what to do?

It was a puzzle — until artistic director Yaacov “Yaki” Bergman and production manager Jain Sekuler visited the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s Up from the Ashes exhibit. A tribute to the victims of the 2020 wildfires that devastated Otis, the spring show featured photos by Bruce MacGregor, as well as art and finds from the rubble.

Clackamas County photographer Bruce MacGregor's "Aftermath Project" is documents the effects of 2020's wildfires. This is Edna on site of her burned home in Ashland.
Clackamas County photographer Bruce MacGregor’s portrait of Edna, on the site of her burned home in Ashland, is part of “The Aftermath Project” documenting the effects of 2020’s wildfires.

“When I was looking at those images, I thought what a remarkable photographer he is,” Bergman said. “The quality of the photography is beyond imagination. It really places you, sucks you into the situation. I was heartbroken when I went out of the room. I said, I must do something.”

And so the festival is doing something.

As it was for much of the world, 2020 was a tough year for the Siletz Bay Music Festival. As early days of COVID shut down life as we knew it, the board canceled the June concert, then waited to see what would happen. They restructured and took advantage of online seminars, one of which advised: “Make a plan, stick to it, change it when you have to.” It was advice they would take to heart.

"Chair. Otis, Oregon. September, 2020" is part of photographer Bruce MacGregor's "Aftermath Project," documenting 2020's devastating wildfires.
“Chair. Otis, Oregon. September, 2020.” Photo by: Bruce MacGregor, The Aftermath Project.

Last fall, they began planning for the 2021 festival, traditionally held in June. A tighter budget meant a smaller festival, but it would still be the much-loved summer event.

“We knew the vaccines were coming,” Sekuler said, noting that predictions were 80 percent of the population would be vaccinated by May.

But Oregon didn’t meet that goal, so the festival changed course. Organizers eventually decided to reopen at the end of summer, a time when tourists are still in town, but also far enough out on the calendar to allow for adequate planning.

“It just felt right,” Sekuler said. “And then, as we wrote it, we saw the dates, September 4th to the 12th.  I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s a year since the fires and 20 years since 9/11.’”  

Festival preparation included visiting proposed venues, which led to the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s exhibit and Bergman’s emotional connection with MacGregor’s work. It was a reaction not only to the catastrophic Labor Day wildfires that swept the state last year, burning more than 1 million acres, but also to years of shared grief in communities nationwide.

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From ashes of the Echo Mountain fire, art

The Lincoln City Cultural Center gathers photography and items culled from the rubble of last fall's wildfire near Otis

Photographer Bruce MacGregor waited out wildfire evacuation warnings near his home in Clackamas County for weeks last fall before it felt safe to head to Otis. There, in the tiny town on Oregon 18, he met survivors of the devastating Labor Day wildfire. He didn’t expect anyone to agree to his request for photos, but their responses were a surprise.

Those photos are part of the new Up from the Ashes exhibit in the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s PJ Chessman Gallery. An opening reception, with a live video tour, is planned for 4 p.m. Friday, April 9. The exhibit will run through May 9.

“It’s a pretty special show,” said Krista Eddy, gallery director. “We are trying to share people’s stories and also show that there is this amazing spark of hope and resilience in people. They’ve struggled and there are good things at the end.”

Bruce MacGregor photographed Larry on Sept. 20, after his Otis home was destroyed in the Echo Mountain fire, then looted. Photo by: Bruce MacGregor
Bruce MacGregor photographed Larry, above, on Sept. 20, after his Otis home was destroyed in the Echo Mountain fire, then looted. Below, on March 16, MacGregor met up with Larry (left) at the same site, where he was waiting for a cement truck to lay a sidewalk to go with his new mobile home. Photos by: Bruce MacGregor
On March 16, Bruce MacGregor met up with Larry in Otis. Larry (left) was waiting for a cement truck and crew to lay a sidewalk to go with his new mobile home. Photo by: Bruce MacGregor

The exhibit includes objects pulled from the rubble following the Echo Mountain Complex Fire, which burned 2,500 acres and destroyed about half of the town’s 1,200 buildings, as well as artwork created by community members, and MacGregor’s photos, which were made before he knew of the planned exhibit, and found a home in it after.

“I had become interested in the project and had put out to relatives and friends that if they knew anyone, I would be happy to do some photography, if it would be useful,” MacGregor said. “I got back one request for a GoFundMe site. He was trying to raise money and wanted photography of himself and his wife. That was the first and most poignant.”

In Otis, a town of about 3,500 a few miles in from the coast, MacGregor met Saki and Guy (Eddy has requested last names not be used, out of respect for fire victims’ privacy), the couple who started the GoFundMe site, and their neighbors, including Larry.

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After the Fire 2: Starting Again

Looking Back: 2020's wildfires left the artisans of Oregon's Santiam Canyon reeling. A luthier and a painter look at what comes next.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The year 2020 has been unlike any in recent memory, piling uncertainty upon uncertainty and disaster upon disasterIt’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 yesterday’s first of two stories for ArtsWatch, After the Fire 1: Scarred Landscape, writer and photographer Dee Moore turned a lens on the ash and ruin of the fire’s charred aftermath. In today’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


Paul Toews’s ties to Santiam Canyon are indelible. His career as a logger started there. It is where he has lived, built his home, made a life, and attempted to make reparations to nature and the forest for a career in logging. And it has long been the inspiration of his many paintings.

“I’ve got a real tie with the land, and it goes back to my profession as a logger,” said Toews, who is 74. “The reason that I am explaining that is that it’s directly connected with my land, and probably the reason that I moved up there. I wanted a little bit where I could do some payback. I could give back what I took.

“I paint realism, and it’s considered contemporary impressionalism. I don’t draw individual leaves as much as the movement of things.” Toews’s primary medium is watercolor. He has painted since high school, but embraced it professionally after he gave up logging following a near-death scare. He began painting professionally, he said, “about the turn of 2000; I started making an effort to establish a studio and establish a clientele and started doing shows and teaching.”

When the Santiam Fire burned through Gates on Sept. 9, Toews lost almost everything: his home, which he had designed and built; and more than 30 paintings. Only the items in his Stayton studio, Art Gone Wild, remained untouched.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


“At least 35, maybe 40 (paintings),” he said with a groan when we talked in late November. “Every once in a while one comes to mind and I think, that was up there.”

His voice had a ragged edge as he described his loss. The trauma remains. Toews has yet to see the effect the fire and loss will have on his art. So far all he has worked on are commissioned pieces. He’s yet to pick up a brush for himself.

Paul Toews, logger turned artist: burned out, starting again.

“Well, I think you’d have to come back maybe in a year for me to be able to answer that,” he said, “because this week was the first time I picked up a brush, and it was a commission job so it was already established what I did. So it’s not a test of what might have shifted inside of me somehow. I haven’t painted – so, yeah, that’s going to be a test of where my mind is I think when I start off that, but I really haven’t had the chance to just say, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?’”

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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.


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.

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Smoke on the water

Photographer Benjie King captures haunting images of Newport’s bayfront and Yaquina Bay Bridge in the orange glow cast by wildfires

The morning after a historic windstorm swept over the central Oregon coast, igniting the Echo Mountain fire in Lincoln County and stoking the flames of other fires already burning, Benjie King was out looking for oxygen for his dad. As he usually does, King, 45, took his camera with him and soon found himself shooting photos of scenes around Newport he knew he was unlikely to experience again.

“I was actually working the night I realized things were going down,” King recalled. “You could look straight at the sun that evening and I knew it was going to be a gorgeous sunset, but I didn’t get a chance to go out that night. The next morning, there was just a gorgeous orange glow — almost like an unusual, beautiful sunset all day.”

It wasn’t a sunset, of course, but the light from fires miles away.

Benjie King shot the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the smoky glow caused by wildfire. "You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again,” he says. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography
Benjie King shot the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the smoky glow caused by wildfire. “You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again,” he says. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography

I first saw King’s photos on the internet 150-odd miles from home, where I was stranded after Labor Day weekend. Driving toward home from Central Oregon on Sept. 8, we knew of the windstorm that had struck the coast the previous evening, closing U.S. 101, and of the fire raging in Otis and Rose Lodge.

It was sunny and clear in the mountains — though the evening before had been heavy with smoke — but we soon noticed a strange wind, not one direction or another, but swirling and oddly foreboding. And then we came to the turnoff for home and discovered the highways were closed. We could drive dozens of miles out of our way to take an alternate route through a landscape that might or might not be safe, or we could wait it out.

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