Watching My Home State Burn

For those of us who love Oregon, this is a time of grief.

By Eden Dawn September 15, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

My parents told me that on the day I was born, they could see bits of ash floating in the air as they drove to the Corvallis hospital. The day before, July 22, 1980, Mount St. Helens had filled the sky with a smaller, follow-up eruption to that May’s infamous blast, pushing smoke and debris into the heavens. I knew this was part of my birth story, but I could never picture Oregon’s pristine fresh air with cinders floating through it. Now, as I write this from my home in Northeast Portland, while we hold the distinction of having the worst air quality of any city in the entire world because one million acres of our beloved state is burning all around us, I can see it with my own eyes.

Here is what I know about being born, raised, and spending my whole adult life in Oregon: We view her as an extension of our family. The smell that comes when you cut down your perfect Christmas tree after trekking through the crunchy snow of Mt. Hood National Forest, the particular joy that burbles up when spotting a gray whale from Cape Foulweather’s coastal cliffs, the magical spray that hits your face when you get too close to the gushing Silver Falls. These are family moments, regardless of who you spend them with.

For folks on the outside, who may know us only from Portlandia or, more recently, our racial justice protests—a far cry from the days when Tonya Harding and the spotted owl were our only claims to fame—these wildfires are just more doomsday news fodder in the relentless onslaught that is 2020. But for me, these fires are consuming the places that made me who I am.

A little me fishing in the North Santiam near my grandparent's house in Idanha, Oregon in the late 1980s. The river rushes past towns badly burnt this week including Detroit, Mill City, and Gates.

When I see the videos of Detroit and Idanha burning, I remember sitting in my grandparents’ backyard there, throwing a ball for Murphy the wonder mutt. When I look at the rubble of the North Cascade Oregon Department of Forestry building at the corner of Highway 22 and North Fork Road, I think of every single summer weekend in the late ’90s, when our caravan of cars turned left at that intersection to head to our secret swimming spot along the river for a day of sunshine, icy water, and laughing at nothing. When Molalla was put on Level 3 evacuation orders and I saw people I knew fleeing, I recalled standing in one of its country cemeteries as we buried my great-grandmother next to my great-grandfather and the wind blew a ripple through the grass and I thought it was a beautiful place to have chosen for your last. When I read the tragic story of 13-year-old Wyatt Tofte dying in the fires with his grandmother and his dog Duke, I sobbed not only for this heartbreaking loss, but also because of how much the Tofte family has given to this state. Family patriarch Roger Tofte created the Enchanted Forest amusement park in 1971, providing countless Oregon children with decades of joyful memories which for me started with jolly, giggle-filled birthday parties and culminated in a marriage proposal from my now-husband in the Seven Dwarves Mine. 

I know this moment is not about me. It’s about those who have lost their homes, their family members, their pets, their livelihoods. It’s about the firefighters risking their lives to save what and who they can, and the volunteers working around the clock to gather donations and care for their neighbors. I know I’m one of the lucky ones: My family, all of whom live in Oregon, too, have all made it through. I’m sitting in my home enveloped in a cloud of smoke watching debris float in the sky like the day I was born—yet despite the pounding headache and heartache, I know how fortunate I am to be here.

But if my soul hurts for Oregon, I know I’m not alone. All of Oregon mourns this moment, and we will for a long time to come. Yet we will march on. We will be scarred, we will be hurt, and we might not be strong again for a while. But we’ll share everything we can with each other, with GoFundMes and neighborhood donations and more. We’ll push for leaders who understand climate change created these conditions and climate action is the only thing that can prevent them in the future. We’ll work to rebuild our homes and our towns. We’ll tell each other stories, about this land and these people, and why they are special, why they are home.

But we will also grieve. Because our Oregon is hurt. And we, as her family, are hurting too. 

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Portland Monthly. Learn more about the wildfires in Oregon in this episode of Footnotes, featuring Eden Dawn.

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