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‘It Looked Like an Atomic Bomb’: Surveying the Bootleg Fire’s Devastation

‘It Looked Like an Atomic Bomb’: Surveying the Bootleg Fire’s Devastation
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‘It Looked Like an Atomic Bomb’: Surveying the Bootleg Fire’s Devastation

‘It Looked Like an Atomic Bomb’: Surveying the Bootleg Fire’s Devastation

BEATTY, Oregon – Marc Valens washed his hands in the rubble of what was once his home, in the bowl where he was making salad. There was something almost normal about it all: the jingling and clicking of lids and pans as he stood in front of the still intact sink and stove.

But any sense of normalcy was an illusion. Much of her home and belongings were gone, engulfed in America’s largest current wildfire, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon.

The frame of a chair rested in the middle of the ash where the living room was. Except for the tall spire of the beige stone fireplace, the outside sink and stove, and a few other things, there wasn’t much else. The rest was rubble and ash – even his car’s aluminum rims melted, leaving a puddle of silver in the dirt.

“It looked like an atomic bomb,” Mr. Valens, 72, said.

The Bootleg Fire consumed a large swath of southern Oregon’s forest – 413,000 acres, an area the size of Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, and New York City combined. It has burned since July 6 and is only 53 percent contained. The blaze, the third largest blaze in Oregon since 1900, mainly burned in a remote, sparsely populated area in and near the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Only 161 houses were destroyed, a low number for such a huge forest fire.

But for Mr. Valens and others who have lost their homes, destruction is destruction of whatever scale.

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One recent afternoon, Mr. Valens walked slowly, hands clasped behind his back, assessing what was left with his wife, Anne Golden. He threw aside part of the wreckage on a charred sled.

“I think it’s still usable,” he said.

Mr Valens slept in a tent near the rubble, returning home as soon as the evacuation orders were lifted. The outhouse burned down, so a neighbor brought him a new one. Her brother brought her a small trailer.

“Now I can take a shower,” explained Mr. Valens.

Mr. Valens and Ms. Golden have lived in the Moondance Ranch home for 50 years, a short drive from Beatty, an unincorporated town about 40 miles north of the California state border. They shared their time there and at their second home in the town of Ashland. He is a retired lawyer who has spent his life specializing in environmental and Native American affairs. She works as a business consultant and sits on the board of directors of a local hospital.

“This is my hippie pickup truck,” Mr. Valens said as he toured his property, pointing to the burnt out wreck of his 1960s Chevrolet motorhome. “When I was 21, I drove for a year across the west coast of Canada, passing through New England to the Blue Ridge Mountains. “

Up close amid the rubble, there was no pattern or logic as to what survived and what did not. The picnic table resting on a patch of grass came out unscathed, perfectly and surreal, sheltered from the flames. On the fireplace was a small ceramic souvenir: a miniature bus with a demon on top of it.

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“It was a small ceramic that I brought back from Mexico on one of my trips,” Mr. Valens said. “This little devil survived.

Earlier this summer, severe heat waves hit the Pacific Northwest. In Portland, temperatures reached as high as 116 degrees and much of the state was braced to scorch during a severe drought. The past few weeks have been particularly chaotic as climate change has helped to trivialize extreme weather conditions and extreme disasters in the region.

“West of Mississippi we have droughts, fires and smoke, and east of Mississippi we have floods,” said Ms. Golden. “It’s biblical. It’s just like the plague and everything.

In the aftermath of the fire, Mr. Valens and Ms. Golden are unsure whether they and others who have lost their homes will receive state or federal assistance. In a meeting with President Biden and a group of governors on Friday, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon called on the president to be flexible in the use of federal disaster relief money in the sparsely populated areas, which are currently not eligible for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a spokesperson mentioned.

Mr Valens said it had been difficult to secure fire insurance for himself and other homeowners in the area. “We couldn’t get as much insurance as we wanted,” he said, adding that he was only able to insure about 20 percent of his ranch months before the fire. .

In 2019, Mr. Valens was diagnosed with a rare form of prostate cancer. As he toured the wreckage, he stopped several times to sit down, the cocktail of drugs helping to keep the cancer in remission making him tired at times. He was calm and contemplative.

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“The lesson I learned with cancer is that it’s a waste of time worrying about what you should have done,” he said. “And this is where we are with fire. What do we have now? What resources are left?

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