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Eight months after 138,000-acre Riverside Fire near Estacada, property owners like Paul Clement are rebuilding

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Paul Clement makes his way through his property along Fall Creek Road in Estacada. Eight months after the Riverside Fire burned through the area, greenery is visible.

In the aftermath of the Riverside Fire, Paul Clement's property has gone through a transformation. As Clement walked through his 19 acres in Estacada eight months after the 138,000-acre ripped through the area, patches of green were visible through the dirt and charred trees.

"It's been a constant metamorphosis of change," Clement said on Thursday, May 20. "First there was the fire, and then finding flames afterward. Two months later there was nothing but charred stuff on the ground. Then it was a shrapnel meadow. Now it's green with life. Green is a refreshing phase."

In September, the Riverside Fire began on the Mt. Hood National Forest and came within a half mile of Estacada city limits. Its footprint was 92 times the area of the city of Estacada, and burned more than 10% of Clackamas County's landbase.

The fire reached 100% containment on Friday, Dec. 4, and at the height of the incident, 500 people from across the country were working to contain the flames. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Paul Clement protected the new trees he planted from blustery winds by using branches from trees that burned in the Riverside Fire.

There were no fatalities from the Riverside and nearby Dowty Road Fires, but 150 structures in the Estacada area were lost — 50 of which were homes. Sections of the Mt. Hood National Forest remain closed as officials clear debris and ensure the area's safety.

Though the flames from Riverside Fire burned large swaths of Clement's property on Fall Creek Road, his home was not damaged.

After evacuating with his family in early September, Clement returned to his property and joined other community members in extinguishing flames in the area. In the months after the fire, neighbors have continued to support one another by planting trees and lending machinery as they work through what the fire's aftermath.

"Our neighbors have been working their tails off," Clement said.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Paul Clement has planted several thousand valley pines after the Riverside Fire burned through the 10 acres of land he owns.

Fire and ice

Several months after the Riverside Fire was contained, Clackamas County was blanketed in snow and ice during a winter storm in February 2021. County government issued a state of emergency because of the conditions. Heavy ice closed roads, and more than 100,000 residents lost power.

Portland General Electric described the incident as the one of the most destructive freezing rain events in four decades. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - The entrance to the Mt. Hood National Forest on Highway 224 remains closed to the public in the aftermath of the Riverside Fire.

In Estacada, trees on Clement's property that had already been weakened by the fire began falling under the blustery winter weather.

He noted that the weather conditions were much stronger than what the area typically sees in the winter.

"There's been so much wind. The weather this year is some that we've simply not had before. There's been sustained winds of unimaginable velocity," Clement said.

During the storm, a neighbor's roof started coming off, potentially because heat from the fire caused the metal to loosen.

"The joke is that the fire is the gift that keeps on giving," Clement said.

Rebuilding after the flames

Clement estimates he lost more than 2,000 trees as a result of the Riverside Fire. Prior to replanting, he used an excavator and a forestry machine to clear the debris left behind by the flames.

"We lost acres of mature, good trees," he said. "It's been work, work, work. I was constantly cutting stuff down and raking."

Several hot spots continued to smoulder and burn on the property.

"I got a 100 gallon water tank and stayed with them until 2 a.m.," Clement said, describing one night he spent under the stars to ensure the area's safety.

COURTESY PHOTO: PAUL CLEMENT  - Many trees on Paul Clement's Estacada property burned in the Riverside Fire.

Prior to the Riverside Fire, the property mainly consisted of Douglas fir trees, and Clement replanted with valley pines. He estimates that in several decades, the new forest on his property will be evenly split between the two species.

"Now, we wait and see what trees live and replant as needed. So far, the new trees are doing pretty good," Clement said.

Walking through the property in the aftermath of the Riverside Fire, Clement said he feels "disbelief and guilt"

"Could I have protected it better? It was a cataclysmic event that no one could have imagined. On the one hand, there's only so much you can do. On the other hand, you can always do more," he said.

As he explored the property on May 20, the ground was wet from a recent rain and greenery can be seen among burned tree stumps. The small, recently-planted trees have been marked with sticks to ensure they are not run over. Clement has also used branches from the burned trees to shelter them from the wind.

He's excited to see what the future will bring to the area.

"Planting is an arduous task. You find yourself daydreaming about what this will look like in 20 years," he said.

COURTESY PHOTO: PAUL CLEMENT  - In the aftermath of the Riverside fire, Paul Clement had to clear numerous trees that had been charred by the flames.

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