Blue River Recovery Slow, but Underway

Story and Photos by Craig Reed

Linda Chmiel serves Randal Harris at her reopened Indigo Cafe, providing a familiar place for Blue River residents to gather and enjoy a meal. Photo by Craig Reed

Residents and officials involved with the recovery of the Blue River area from the devastation of the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire say the process is inching forward.

Devin Thompson, executive director of the McKenzie Valley Long-Term Recovery Group of Lane County—an agency established to find resources to help with the rebuilding efforts—says the process has been slow.

“We were warned by other recovery groups that it was going to be a long process, especially when dealing with state and federal dollars.”

The group has received about $200,000 in donations to help with the recovery.

Signs of new construction in the burned area of the McKenzie River drainage are mostly for residential structures.

According to the McKenzie recovery group, 124 of the 517 structures destroyed in the fire have been rebuilt and another 108 have been granted active building permits. Devin says the group has provided help to 135 families and their properties. That leaves 285 structures that have yet to begin the rebuilding process. Melanie Stanley, whose Blue River store burned to its foundation, awaits approval to rebuild her business. Expanded road-width proposals for Blue River Drive in an effort to improve safety have delayed her progress. “We’re at a snail’s pace,” Melanie says. “We have faced every challenge from funding deficit to county right-of-way regulations. You name it; we’ve faced it.”

Melanie explains the proposed wider road would run “right in the middle of my store and make it impossible to build. Safety concerns are valid, but they’re meant for high-traffic areas, and we don’t have that here,” she says. “We are hoping for an amendment for Blue River Drive to what the road width was at the time of the fire. Blue River Drive remaining at its original width is what makes the most sense for this area.”

“We managed with that for many, many years and had very few, if no, problems,” she adds. “There needs to be some changes to the regulations so we can make a comeback.”

Melanie says another issue is that insurance settlements received a couple of years ago won’t cover the construction cost in 2023 because material prices have risen.

“There’ll be negotiations with insurance companies,” she says.

Melanie is optimistic, however, that code amendments will be approved and building permits released by August so construction can begin before winter weather hits.

Linda Chmiel, owner of Indigo Cafe, now operates out of a remodeled trailer.

Clinton Roman is another Blue River resident and business owner impacted by the fire. A glassblower for the past 30 years, he lost his home, his glass studio with several art pieces and all his tools.

“The fire took it all away,” he says. “I wasn’t just monetary; it was sentimental. It was a hard hit. I have not recovered.”

Clinton is back to work, but his shop is now a trailer some friends gave him, with tools provided by other friends. He’s living in a small recreational vehicle.

“I’m living in an aftermath of hell,” he says. “Just rubble and burnt trees. It’s not much fun. I’ve got five neighbors who were burned out, but there’s been no construction work done on those properties. The land was cleared, but there’s just piles of debris left.”

Linda Chmiel reopened Indigo Cafe last October after remodeling a trailer into her cafe. She says she’s received overwhelming community support.

Linda lost her house, the truck that pulled her food trailer and some outbuildings to the fire.

“It was mind-blowing,” she says of the loss. “It was difficult to deal with mentally. Visually it was terrible, and it also smelled horrible. But I thought it was important to give people something familiar, a place to gather and to eat good food.”

Linda found a double-wide house in Albany, moved it to her property and moved a trailer from Sandy to Blue River, where she remodeled it into her cafe.

“Once I focus and decide on something, I keep pushing and pushing until I get it done,” she says. “Everything lined up for me—the manufactured home and the trailer. I just wanted to get my business opened.

“The community needed a small morale boost,” she adds. “I built the service counter on the food cart out of incense cedar, so for me, it was coming full circle. Making something beautiful out of a terrible event. Rehabbing the land was part of my healing process.”

Blue River resident Randal Harris says he believes the reopening of Indigo Cafe is helping others in the area recover by showing it can be done.

The Blue River Bottle Boys continue to help by collecting and turning in recyclable containers. The effort has raised about $100,000, with donations being made to the area’s community centers, library, fire station, food pantries and health clinic.

Devin says there have been numerous discussions with county commissioners and state representatives to speed the recovery process up, “but things just don’t seem to move quickly.”

However, he remains optimistic in his vision for the future.

“I see families returning, I see a community rebuilt, I see Melanie’s store rebuilt, I see a community strong and resilient for the future,” Devin says. “We just hope people keep their chins up until resources start coming in to help them out.”