Rebuilding Blue River

The community is rebounding after the Holiday Farm Fire

By Craig Reed

Although they faced several challenges, residents are working to restore the community. Photo by Craig Reed

One year after a fire torched the McKenzie River drainage and destroyed the Blue River community, the recovery process is slowly progressing.

Many residents have rebounded from the initial shock of the devastation left by the 173,393-acre Holiday Farm Fire last September and are doing their best to move forward. A few have decided they cannot deal with the blackened landscape and have made plans to settle elsewhere.

“Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Matt McRae, the long-term disaster recovery manager for Lane County. “Building a home from scratch is a long-term endeavor. Most of us buy a home already built. Most people don’t build from scratch. It can be a yearlong process.”

Kathy Keable, a Blue River area resident and a member of the Lane Electric Cooperative Board of Directors, agrees that recovery takes time.

A lot of the cleanup work is complete, with residents thanking the Cascade Relief Team, Reach Out Worldwide, and Love First for their major contributions to that effort. But those same residents say the permit process to rebuild structures has been slow and has delayed construction.

Melanie Stanley-Brite, who lost both her Blue River grocery/liquor store and her nearby house to the fire, says rebuilding the community has been hindered by several challenges, including the permit process, high lumber costs, zoning, codes, and finding contractors.

“There’s a lot of significant challenges, but overall, I think people are trying to move forward as quickly as they can,” Melanie says. “If you have everything else in place, but don’t already have a contractor nailed down, it’ll be almost impossible to get one for at least several months.”

Jane Glen, a Blue River resident since 2003 and a U.S. Postal Service rural route carrier since 2006, agrees the permit process has been slow. As of late July, she has seen a few houses under construction. She says most people she has talked to remain positive as they deal with issues.

“Most people realize the community is not going to be what it was—at least not in the short term—but they’re pretty optimistic,” Jane says.

Blue River resident Ginny Budd says more construction in the area is needed to help raise people’s spirits.

Matt says the county has added staff to help with the permit process. He says he has fielded questions on permits and directed people to the appropriate county office and staff. He has also helped coordinate and connect nonprofit organizations that are helping to fund some of the recovery projects.

“We’re working to get people back on their feet,” Matt says. “It’s amazing the amount of motivation, determination, and creativity of those who have been affected. Many of those people just won’t take no for an answer.”

The Blue River Tool Library was established by the Timber Unity group last fall, soon after the fire had cooled down and people were allowed to return to the area. A variety of tools— from shovels to wheelbarrows to chainsaws—were donated and are loaned out to help residents with their projects.

Anthony Abel, an eight-year resident of Blue River, manages the tool library.

Melanie Stanley-Brite stands on the foundation where her store burned during the Holiday Farm Fire. She is trying to rebuild, but the process is slow. Photo by Craig Reed

“The response has been great, with both tool and monetary donations,” he says.

Anthony says library tools were heavily used during cleanup, and he expects residents to use it again when they are able to begin construction projects.

“It’s been a difficult process for people,” he says of the rebuilding effort. “People have good days, people have bad days, but lately I’m seeing more good days. Hopefully that trend continues. I’ve been impressed with how the community and even beyond has come forward to support the fire survivors.”

Kathy says each Blue River Area resident’s situation is unique.

“We really miss our friends who have moved away but are so happy a few are finally conquering the permit process and are starting to rebuild,” she says. “Dealing with the trauma and change has been very difficult, especially during the COVID restrictions. It definitely helps that we can now meet in person and catch up with our neighbors. I think people are looking out for and helping each other more now than before the fire.”

There are a few more “for sale” signs on properties that were blackened by the fire. Those residents made the decision not to return because they didn’t want to deal with the permit process, or they didn’t have the energy for the rebuilding process.

Jane says properties are selling for more than their appraised values, so the area that features the nearby McKenzie River is still popular.

“Some of the community members are going to be different,” Jane says. “But the ones who are staying are very optimistic about it.”

Melanie, who hoped to have her permit to build a new house by the end of August, says she understands there are different reasons people have decided not to stay.

Her permit to build a new store is still in the application process.

“I’m glad there are still familiar faces here,” she says. “To those staying, I say ‘Thank you!’”

The community affected by the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire will gather on the McKenzie Community Track and Field on Monday, September 6, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in remembrance of the catastrophic event.

Art From the Ruins

art sculptures of human forms from cedar trees
Photo by Margaret Godfrey

Margaret Godfrey commissioned artist Chris Foltz to sculpt two dead 70-year-old cedar trees in front of her home into abstract human forms representing her and her husband, Mike, and the roots they put down at their family home. The trees were casualties of the Holiday Farm Fire.

“About all we agreed upon was there should be 2 heads that represented a male and female figures. I had no idea how he would, or could, somehow connect these 2 stumps, since they had a yard or 2 separation. They certainly would not be holding hands.”

Visit the Margaret Godfrey Art page to see more photos of the completed work.