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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Oregon Is Burning, Again

July 2021

Oregon is burning, again. It burned last summer casting smoke in our area of Lakeview and Lake County. The smoke began quite seriously in mid-August and by the end of September, I left.

More than once during August and September 2020,we had all the windows and doors closed all night and could still smell the smoke as it seeped in through the smallest cracks available. A few times we drove 80 miles east to the old family ranch to be able to wander the Guano Valley desert. We could see a smoky layer around the horizon, but the sky was still blue and the sun shone hot. We could breathe easily. We walked through the family house, now inhabited in summer by the swallows and their nested young. Robert described the meals in the dining room lit by kerosene lanterns at either end of the table. As we walked upstairs, he always told me the story about how he and his sister, Mary, dropped lit matches down knotholes in the stairway, so lucky, and now in disbelief that they did not set the house on fire. But what do little children know about danger. He also told about going to the Jack Creek place or Barry Reservoir as we drove there. So many stories. So much family history.

When I told him how I would love to spend a summer there, he looked at me as if I were crazy. No, he said, he would not want to do that as an adult. No running water, no internet, no cell or landline phone, no electricity; all that was no longer his cup of tea, but I could do that for three or four months. The isolation, silence, and solitude for writing sounds wonderful. Never having to fear for a forest—there are no forests there—or range fire also sounds comforting. I would even take the hot weather for all that isolation.

This year the forest fires in the area of town, the town 80 miles to the west, began in June, about seven weeks earlier than last year. I went down from Alaska the third week in June. Two weeks later, the Bootleg fire started about 55 miles west of us. Due to wind, temperatures in the 90s, and extreme dry conditions, this lightening-started fire grew by the day until it is now the largest wildfire in the country. That doesn’t feel comfortable.

It’s spreading towards Summer Lake and Paisley. Summer Lake, about 20 miles long and 12 miles wide, is now almost completely dry. Some years, though, we’ve driven through water on the road. For years I’ve wanted to walk Winter Rim that lays a thousand or more feet above. When I hiked various National Forest Service trails in 2006, I was told not to hike Winter Rim because the snags, the standing, burned, dead pines, could still fall without notice. In June, my husband and I drove up there. “Stop here,” I said. I need to get out and walk at least a bit of the trail. I walked a half-mile or so and said would come back later to hike the whole Rim. It looks like it may be another several years. I think that whole area is now at a Level 2 Evacuation Zone.

This morning Robert was out at the north end of town when he saw 15 fire trucks headed north towards Paisley. From there or before, they’ll turn off to head up on the dirt roads into the hills. Hopefully, they’re going there to set backfires in an effort to halt the fire’s eastward progression.

These fire crews are from all over Oregon and California. Their station headquarters is at the Lakeview High School and we imagine they’re all sleeping in the gym there.

I fear for the forests. I fear for the environment. I fear for the people. I fear for the ranches, the fish in the streams and rivers that are drying up.

Before I left Oregon, I told my husband what to take if we end up on a Level 3 Evacuation. That’s the one where you have minutes to leave your home. Take the painting of me that hangs in the bedroom, the one Ed did in an hour and half, the one many people have offered to buy. Not the photo albums from even my grandparents’ generation. No, take that one painting of me. I may add two of the drawings my first husband did, but I never mentioned those. No, it’s that one painting. Not for sentimentality but for its quality. I’ve thought about it since I left a few days ago and I still say the one painting. I have many things, furniture and sentimental items from my childhood home, but no. Take that one painting. Sitting on the plane on my way back to Alaska, I still thought that one painting.

Then I began to think of the ranches, the Ponderosa forests, the plains of sage, the waterless lakes, rivers, and streams and I began to cry. This is still Lake County of now-dry lakebeds. No, it’s not our house I wanted to weep for. It was the land, the trees, the sagebrush, the culture of that part of southern Oregon, the heritage of the people who live there, who have lived there for millennia. It’s the Modoc, the Paiute, the Yurok—those old cultures of southern Oregon. I also wept for the more recent cultures. My husband’s grandparents and many relatives who helped make that part of the country what it is today, what it has been for over 100 years.

I look on the internet to see the satellite photo of the area, the photo that shows the enormity of the Bootleg Fire with its smoke moving across eastern Oregon and on over Idaho.

What happens if the wildfire approaches your town, your home? I can only imagine. Perhaps a sense of panic that you want to save your life, your family, some of your belongings. Perhaps my belongings would matter more to me at that moment, but it’s a sadness for the possible loss of the area and its culture I seem to fear more. It’s any house, town, way of life, the land and forests that I fear the loss of more than I fear for my possessions.

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