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As Firefighters Leave, Oregon Town Sifts Through Ash And Rubble

Traci Weaver
National Park Service
The Mormon Lake Hot Shots from Flagstaff, Arizona, hike along Road 1067 to prepare for and conduct burnout operations in Dark Canyon.

Firefighters are gaining the upper-hand in containing the Canyon Creek Complex fires. But that’s not much relief to the wildfire’s worst-hit community. So far, 39 homes near John Day, Oregon, have been destroyed, along with around 50 barns, stores and other structures.

“We’ve had fires here before, but it’s always been in the woods never anything to this capacity,” John Day resident Tanni Wenger said.

Wenger helped a friend sell commemorative t-shirts outside the fairgrounds. It’s become a basecamp for the thousands of fire officials and workers who have passed through John Day to battle one of the state’s biggest wildfires.

“It’s just a huge tragedy,” she said. “We’ve just never experienced anything like this before. You have someone’s house burn down and the community rushes in to help them. We’ve never seen the loss of 39 homes, and it’s 39 people that you see everyday.”

'These families have nothing'

All over town people are leaving pans and shovels outside. It’s so families can sift through their burned belongings. At the fairgrounds, people are dropping off donations.

The county fair building is stacked wall to wall with donations. It’s so full they’ve had to start taking items to an old junior high school gym to keep track of it all. Families come to grab what they need. People keep their distance, so neighbors can get help without being embarrassed.

Steve Parsons, a retired electrician helping to collect items, said the most common items people take are chainsaws and wheelbarrows to help sort through the ash.

“It can tear your heart out, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Most of John Day is along a mountain highway. Houses can be miles apart. So even if your home was spared, Parsons said you likely have a neighbor who has lost everything.

Wenger said the worst of the fire may be over, but it will take a long time for the town to recover.

“Most people can name half of the people who lost their homes,” she said. “These families have nothing, they have to sift through the rubble and decide what they are going to do.”

Shifting resources to higher-priority fires

At lunchtime the next day, Nancy Hitz and others from town set up a kitchen at the fairgrounds. They were making sure firefighters were eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“We need to keep them fed, so they can save our town, our country and our homes,” Hitz said.

And they are. Finally, the firefight seems to have turned a corner. More of the fire is contained now. And the number of firefighters on the scene is dropping.

“Yesterday we fed 600, the day before that, we did 1,300,” she said.

Winds are mostly sending the fire away from homes and into wilderness areas. Evacuation alerts still rise and fall with little notice, but most people are heading back to their homes.

“I’d say, they are feeling a little bit more comfortable about the fire itself,” fire information officer Vince Mazzier said.

“As far their homes are at risk, I think that is winding down,” he said. “Most of the structure protection is in place that’s going to be there and we don’t see a lot of threat to structures right now. Anything could happen, though, with the weather. We don’t control mother nature.”

For now, with this fire becoming more contained and others growing, Canyon Creek is falling on priority lists for aid and firefighting resources. They’re still dealing with smoke and ash. But American Red Cross closed its John Day shelter and is opening one on the Washington border.

Many firefighters have been working as much as 21 days straight and will have only two days off before they’re reassigned.