Amid Riverside fire, Estacada is burned, not bowed
"You look at this, and we were really lucky."
Paul Clement is surveying part of a neighbor's property when he says it. He's standing next to a pile of remains from a scorched metal building, the frame of the structure the only thing still standing above the pile of burned rubble.
Clement describes the scene as "kind of Armageddon-like." Though some greenery is visible, most of the trees are black and brown after being charred by flames. A pungent smell lingers in the air, and smoke creates an unsettling white backdrop that serves as a reminder of the fire that had ripped through the area days before.
Clement is one of many Estacada residents whose property has been impacted by the massive Riverside fire. By late last week, the burn acreage was hovering right around 136,000. Though Clement's home is still standing — something he's grateful for, because not all community members can say the same — large sections of the 19 acres he owns were impacted by the fire.
After evacuating on Tuesday, Sept. 8, to Peace Lutheran Church and later with family in Vancouver, Clement returned home to Fall Creek Road in Estacada on Saturday, Sept. 12, to extinguish hot spots on his property and to check on homes for his neighbors.
"I want to come back and do what I can to defend things," says Clement, who took forestry classes shortly after he moved to Estacada 16 years ago.
Clement isn't the only one returning to the area, and multiple vehicles also are driving through the smoke to make their way back home.
"Most people have split, but a lot of people have stayed. Most people who have stayed have lived here a long time. There are a lot of logger and timber folks. They've been through this before," Clement says.
The Riverside fire is approximately 92 times the area of the city of Estacada and has burned more than one tenth of Clackamas County's land.
This isn't the first time the community has dealt with a large fire. In 2014, the 36 Pit fire on the nearby Mt. Hood National Forest forced many residents to evacuate. But Riverside fire spans around 25 times the size of the 36 Pit fire, potentially making it the largest incident of its kind Estacada has gone through.
But this isn't a story about a fire that destroyed a community. It's the story of a community that survived a fire.
In the aftermath of the fire, in the parking lot of the Cazadero Steakhouse near downtown Estacada, many people can be found coordinating a relief center with food and other resources for those who have been displaced by the incident.
One volunteer said he hadn't been able to return to his Estacada home yet, but was happy to be back in the community to help others first.
Nearby, another group of community members is working to feed the numerous firefighters battling the flames from the Riverside incident.
Just a few minutes from the relief center, another resource station is available at the Estacada Area Food Bank. People are encouraged to take what they need and bring what they can. Boxes filled with sweet potatoes, canned goods, juices and breakfast foods, along with a shopping cart with additional produce, stand outside of the building.
While driving on Highway 211, heading back into the heart of the burn zone, Clement describes the plumes of smoke enveloping the roads as the worst he's seen so far. In the back of his truck, he has tools to deal with any downed trees he encounters.
"I've seen carnage from head-on collisions," he adds. "The sheriff's office is not saying you can't go, but you're on your own."
On the way home, Clement stops at several friends' properties, ensuring that fallen branches are away from smoldering locations. For one set of neighbors, he brings a large barrel of drinking water to put in their trailer.
Clement's phone rings several times with calls from fellow Estacada residents asking about the status of the area and discussing when it might be safe to move back in. His wife calls to ask him to pick up several items from the house.
Neighbors come together
"I wouldn't want to repeat it, but I'm happy to serve the community."
Jeremy Bechdel makes the comment as he prepares to help remove a tree from a hot spot on Clement's property. Many residents of the Fall Creek Road area, Bechdel included, stayed behind when the Level 3 evacuation order was announced to help save their community.
Residents of Fall Creek Road were one of multiple groups in the Estacada who remained to help fight the fire.
Clement notices the still-burning embers not long before Bechdel and a group of community members stop by to see if any help was needed. He hadn't called them, but he says he's thankful they showed up at just the right time.
A chainsaw buzzes loudly as the group works together to remove the tree. The ground around them has burned, and they stand on a large slab of wood to ensure their safety. Several people use a large branch to help push the trunk as the sawing continues until the task is completed.
John Hil, whose property is behind Clement's, also has been extinguishing hot spots as he encounters them.
"Anything that comes in this direction, I say, 'You're not gonna get my house.' This has been my homestead forever. There's a time to bail and a time when you shouldn't," he says.
Hil adds that he's not a hero.
"I'd help anyone out in the blink of an eye. People are mad at me for staying here. My best friends were beside themselves that I'm here, but it was really nice to hear I'd helped someone out," he continues. "I'm not afraid of nothing. Country boys will survive."
He's quick to note that he isn't the only person working to keep the flames away.
"I owe so many thank-you's. I could spend the rest of my life saying thank you and I'd still have people to thank," he says, adding that he's particularly grateful for members of Porter Mennonite Church who helped. "I'm going to shake all of their hands and join their religion."
In an age marked with political contention, Hil thinks it's important that community members came together the way they did.
Earlier this summer, Estacada saw several marches against racism and — similar to events across the country — there also were many counter protestors at these gatherings. March participants held signs stating "I love Estacada, I hate racism" and "My Black friends matter." Some people watching responded that "all lives matter," while others told marchers — many of whom were from Estacada — to go home. One onlooker had both middle fingers raised, and multiple participants reported on social media that they were spit on.
But that strife isn't what Hil sees when he looks around his community after the fire.
"The bottom line is, with all the political bulls*** going on, from the left and the right, everyone came out to help and they're good people," Hil says. "Everyone pitched in."
He encourages people to come to Estacada to "get a real life lesson in humanity."
"In the end, we're all human. That's the bottom line. We all have love and respect," he says. "I can already see goodness come out of this whole thing."
Hil adds that he's particularly grateful to have Clement as his neighbor.
"Paul is number one. I had to keep in touch with him. I can't say enough about him and Debbie. They're exceptional people," he says. "I've known them for seven or eight years, but it feels like a lifetime. I'd do anything for that guy. We've got such awesome neighbors."
'The closest thing to being in hell'
"I don't go to church very often, but I promised God, if you grant me this one wish, I'll go to church for six months," Hil says, recalling the bargain he made with a higher power as he left his property, possibly for the last time. As he drove away, conditions didn't look optimistic, and flames were engulfing the trees near his house. "I thought about one year, but I'm not going to lie to Him."
Hil describes the fearsome nature of the wildfires.
"It was a nightmare. It was the closest thing to being in hell," he says. "I looked straight up and there were black clouds roaring everywhere, with a cone of orange in the middle."
As fast as he could, Hil rounded up his mother and cat. He couldn't immediately locate the feline — whose name is Cat — and was losing his voice from the smoke as he searched. Once he found the creature, he picked it up and instructed it not to scratch him.
Prior to collecting the cat, he found his mother in the kitchen, peeling an egg and washing dishes.
"She said she knew from the last fire she'd be hungry," he recalls. "At least the dishes will be done when I come back. I can't help but love her."
Once the pair reached their vehicle, Hil put the cat in his lap and drove away, thinking he might have seen the last of his home.
But upon returning, Hil says he was shocked and grateful to see parts of his neighborhood still standing.
"I didn't think I had any neighbors left. I was so happy, I started to cry. It was totally beyond comprehension," he adds. "I'm amazed. This timber should be gone. … This thing should have been toast."
The immediate threat is past, and Clement has time now to look upon lessons learned.
"I asked (my wife) if she was ready to do it all over again. It would suck to lose this stuff, but all the other stuff we didn't know about or didn't have the money for, we'd do it this time," he says.
Even when discussing what he would have done if his home had been lost to the flames, Clement's outlook remains resilient.
"Now that we've done it, it's not as scary. Now we know we know more of what we're doing," he adds.
On Fall Creek Road, Clement notices several signs of life amid the scorched earth as he walks between his and Hil's property. A hummingbird flies through the smoke and lands on Hil's deck, where a tomato plant still grows. Spots of green can be seen peeking out through the brown remains left behind by the fire.
As he looks at the area, Clement expresses gratitude to the community members who kept parts of the Fall Creek neighborhood standing.
"People did a lot of work that really saved us," he says.
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