The sky looked like a sandstorm was coming, but I knew better. I’d seen plenty of storms while working oil rigs in the middle east and knew that western Oregon couldn’t generate such an event. Knowing that a fire was nearby, I rounded up my horses and trailered them in case we had to evacuate. After doing that, I went inside where my wife Maudie was transferring important documents into the firesafe we bought for such an occasion. For years we’d been living without television and only listened to the radio occasionally. Our days were spent tending our vegetable gardens and gathering eggs to sell at the country store, so we didn’t know how much devastation was occurring statewide. We could only prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The smell of smoke grew stronger, then a huge cloud of it came over the ridge and enveloped our property. I could see burning embers settling in the corn field that was still green but could ignite. Maudie looked at me with fear in her eyes and I knew it was time to leave. I grabbed the keys to the truck and put on my hat, then helped her load suitcases into the crew seat. Before driving away, I turned the chickens loose after dumping a bag of feed on the ground. Hopefully, they and our home would be standing upon our return. It was only when we topped the ridge surrounding our little valley that we could see the conflagration sweeping across the land ahead of a strong, steady wind. Maudie clutched my arm and I saw tears forming in her eyes. The wall of flames was headed our way.
Getting to the road into town was a harrowing experience. When we did manage to outrun the fire, I swerved onto the pavement and kept the gas pedal glued to the floorboard. As we entered our little community of 650 people, I saw a procession of cars heading in the opposite direction. A Sheriff’s car was blocking the road ahead, and an officer was waving a baton to divert traffic toward the freeway. When I idled to a stop next to him and asked what was going on, he told me that several towns had been destroyed and that everyone was taking refuge at the county fairgrounds. We didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I turned around and joined the swarm of refugees.
I’d shown horses at the fair several times, but those occasions were nothing like what awaited us. Hundreds of campers, RVs and tents filled the parking areas. Later, I would discover that those without shelter were being housed in the livestock barns. A water truck was dispensing life-giving sustenance to a line of people carrying containers of all sizes and types. Concession stands were open and giving away food to those who’d been forced to flee unprepared. I was dismayed at first, but soon realized these were the fortunate ones as tales of missing people and deaths were broadcast by the media.
Though the circumstances were dire, we had one thing in common. We were Oregonians. Over the next weeks, politics, race and religion ceased to matter. Staying alive and rebuilding became the goal. Sharing what we had or could garner. Maudie and I mucked out toilets and volunteered to cook as emergency rations became available. When the fires subsided and the smoke cleared, we were allowed to go back home, only our house was gone and our property lie incinerated. Maudie cried. I cried. It was a time for tears. As we stood holding hands surveying the devastation, our tears of sadness were suddenly transformed into tears of joy when our rooster emerged from a pile of rubble leading a dozen clucking hens. There would be a tomorrow and life would begin anew.