Oregon’s forests are designed to burn; our homes don’t have to be. Still standing after the 2020 wildfires, some Oregon homes point to a future of coexistence with fire.
By Wesley Lapointe

Top-left: March 26, 2021- One of few remaining old growth patches in Oregon, this area outside of Lowell doesn’t get many visitors. Full of both flourishing and decomposing vegetation, old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest is some of the most carbon-dense forest in the world. Scientists say that allowing these invaluable carbon sinks to store as they’re capable of is a necessary long term step in the path to fire-coexistence.
Top-right: March 25, 2021- Charred from the Holiday Farm Fire less than 8 months ago, a blackened stump stands high above a the burnt McKenzie RIver Valley. Fire is a part of the life cycle of these forests. The changing climate is causing more frequent fires that are spreading increasingly close to major cities.
Bottom-left: May 12, 2021- A burnt conifer stand atop a peak in the Columbia Gorge is full of spring life, nearly 4 years after the 48,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire swept through the Gorge. Proponents of logging and replanting burnt forests often claim that a burnt forest will be dead for generations. But within months of a fire, new life begins to regrow. In fact, post-fire forests are some of the most biodiverse pockets of Oregon in their early years of abundance.
Bottom-right: March 10, 2021- A tree planter plants baby douglas firs in a clearcut above Creswell. Longheld beliefs in land management maintain that logging reduces fire severity. However Harold Zald and Chris Dunn’s analysis of land management and fire behavior in the Douglas Complex Fire found that the private tree plantations, like the one shown here, consistently burnt more severely than the nearby natural forest.

April 21, 2021- At least once a day, frantic barks from The Bradshaws’ two Labradoodles signal the arrival of a neighbor who’s since returned in temporary housing. “We are where everybody comes when they need water or when they have to go to the bathroom.” Here, Mary Bradshaw and Gage the labradoodle stand in front of her home in Elkhorn.

ELKHORN, OR — Eight months after the Beachie Creek Fire tore through Mary Bradshaw’s community in the Santiam Canyon, a fluorescent pair of rufous hummingbirds darted behind her clothesline. Bradshaw was relieved the birds had returned. Many of her human neighbors still hadn’t. Mary and her husband Paul Bradshaw are among the few residents whose valley homes survived the fire. The Bradshaws’ home-hardening measures, such as building with non-combustible materials and landscaping, have set a local gold standard. But not all residents are onboard. “Some of them said ‘No,’” Mary recalled. “‘We want to live in the forest and [fire] is the price you pay.’”

April 18, 2021- Greg Silva’s housemate Dave Laurence, helps Nate Franz re-roof their Springfield home. Atop a forested hill, the fire risk of flammable construction materials and dense undergrowth became much more real after Laurence and Greg Silva had to evacuate their home during the Holiday Farm Fire.

April 18, 2021- Nate Franz measures and cuts panels before finalizing the metal roof on his old friend, Greg Silva’s, home. Experts say that a metal roof is a significant step towards reducing the risk of structures igniting.

April 18, 2021- Nate Franz and Dave Laurence lay down one of the last panels on the end of Greg Silva’s roof.
In many McKenzie River Valley residents’ yards, decades-old conifers stood tall. During summer, they bathed homes in a cooling shade. But in 2010, the Bradshaws cleared all brush and trees within 100 feet of their house. Neighbors told them the unobstructed summer sun would be unbearable. “People thought we were crazy,” Mary said. Regardless, down came the trees.

The couple had researched the most flame-resistant construction and landscaping practices before building, so they “didn’t have to worry about fire.” The fundamentals of those guidelines, which advise clearing fire-fuels and building non-combustible– or “hardened”– homes, haven’t changed much since the Bradshaws built their home. Leading fire science shows that most homes lost to wildfire first ignite from wind-blown embers (known as firebrands) landing on the fuels around structures.

The fire season of 2020 was the worst many Oregonians had ever seen. In the Southern Oregon town of Talent, where more than 6,000 people live, fire destroyed more than 2,000 residential structures. “It became a domino effect of structure-to-structure ignitions,” said Dominick DellaSala, a Talent resident and chief scientist at the Geos Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to mitigating climate change. When DellaSala saw smoke on the horizon on Sept. 7, he hosed down his roof. Then he joined the frenzied evacuation. Crawling north on Route 99, he was struck by Talent’s lack of fire preparedness. “None of these homes were hardened.”

“People called this ‘The Ironwood Forest’
because it wouldn’t burn.
They don’t call it that anymore.”

February 26, 2021- Mary and Paul Bradshaw’s home in Elkhorn is surrounded by 200 feet of cleared land. This fuel reduction along with their hardened home stacks the chances in their favor in the event of a wildfire. Their home is one of just a few on their road that survived the Beachie Creek Fire of 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Ralph Bloemers)

A random selectiveness, a logic of chaos, runs through many burn areas in the McKenzie River Valley. Houses stand unscathered over here. Their neighbors’ homes, just over there, turned to ash.

When couple Kristen Bjork Mercurio and Alex Mercurio moved to the area from Southern California in January 2020, they began clearing underbrush their three-acre lot. They felled trees and planted new ones.  “It feels like Mother Nature can breathe again,” Bjork Mercurio said.

But the couple was concerned about their lot’s hydrology– the way water moves across it– rather than its fire preparedness. They transformed their lot into a rolling meadow dotted with conifers and small ponds. “At the post office, people questioned it,” Bjork Mercurio said. An official from the Oregon Department of Forestry even paid the couple a visit after someone complained about the changes the couple had made to their land. “There was real concern that we [changed our lot] to put more housing in,” Bjork Mercurio said.

After the Holiday Farm Fire, officials again visited the Los Angelenos. But this time, they lauded the couple’s fuel reduction, which likely spared their home. “It was a fortuitous accident,” Bjork Mercurio said. The immense efforts by the couple upon arriving also created a firebreak for their uphill neighbors. Both their adjacent and uphill neighbors said on multiple occasions that what the couple did saved their own properties.

The success of their defueling efforts appeared to be a blueprint for others living in dense forests to follow. The only issue? “This took us six months and it cost a fortune,” said Bjork Mercurio. “Yes, it takes a community; yes, it takes government partnerships; but where is there enough money to help everybody enough to make a difference?”

To some, the answer to that question lies in the receipts of past wildfire mitigation efforts, which tell a story of expanding budgets and diminishing returns. The same 2020 Emergency Board funds that launched community preparedness efforts like the Wildfire Workforce Corps pilot also included an investment of $13 million to expand firefighter personnel, suppression equipment and large-scale thinning projects. Fire suppression via 747 air tanker — a dramatic last resort against uncontrolled infernos — costs about $65,000 per fire retardant drop. If that same number was invested in proactive fuel-reduction work like that done by the Wildfire Workforce Corps, it could fund over 5,000 hours of defensible space-maintenance. And, although the state was unable to scrape together the $200 million called for by the governor’s 2020 fire bill, they still invested about $20 million in large-scale forest management projects.

April 28, 2021- The fuel reduction done by Kristen Bjork Mercurio is credited with saving their home and their neighbors’. But Kristen is aware that most Oregonians couldn’t afford an investment like the one they made in land restoration, and worries that the privilege of reducing fuel loads will further drive inequalities following future wildfire seasons
April 28, 2021- Alex Mercurio and Kristen Bjork Mercurio water their garden together, at the bottom of their hilly property.

“This took us six months
and it cost a fortune.”

Ultimately, the path to living with fire in a flammable landscape demands a shift in the deeply-held misconception that fire can — and should — be prevented at all costs. In an east wind event like the bellows that fanned the five 2020 Labor Day fires across Western Oregon, no amount of firefighting or forest management budgets could have fully protected communities. But stories like Mary Bradshaw’s and Kristen Bjork Mercurio’s point the way to a future in which the inevitability of wildfire does not mean certain doom for rural homeowners.

Today, just beyond Bjork Mercurio’s rolling emerald hillside in Leaburg, much of the horizon is contoured by blackened treetops. “They called this the Ironwood Forest because it hadn’t burned,” she said of the McKenzie Valley’s once-bountiful forest. “It doesn’t have that nickname anymore.”

March 25, 2021- “They called this the Ironwood Forest because it hadn’t burnt,” Kristen Bjork Mercurio said of the McKenzie Valley’s once-bountiful forest. “It doesn’t have that nickname anymore.” Half a year after the fire, this bare, burnt forest canopy in Vida allows sunlight through to the grasses, berry bushes and wildflowers that will soon begin to sustain their small corner of this delicate post-fire ecosystem.