Sean Davis is a writer, a veteran and a wildland firefighter. He lives in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. In the summer of 2020, the McKenzie River Valley was devastated by a forest fire that quickly burned 174,000 acres and destroyed more than 500 homes.
Sean says he has been to the apocalypse four times. He has seen difficult things and you will find that he shares those stories candidly. You will also notice that he shares even the most graphic details with laughter…not because he doesn’t care, but specifically because he does.
“In this valley, it was so dry at the end of the summer, and one little spark caused 174,000 acres worth of damage. Over 500 homes. Half of those homes are uninsured because the poverty is so spread out up here and it was just devastation.
I tell everybody that was the fourth time I’ve been to the apocalypse. I think that’s why it was a little easier for me to kind of take charge and lead some convoys to safety and organize. A lot of the combat vets—you know, Al, he’s combat vet too—we just stepped up and helped out where we could.
As a wildland firefighter, your uniform is greens and yellows. You have your yellow top and your green bottoms. And then of course your big old boots and maybe some suspenders. But when the national guard cut the roads off, so nobody else can get back in here, I just put my greens and yellows on and I got back in. And then there was a lot of people in here that never left. So we all just got together and started helping people. We had to feed a lot of animals because everybody left their animals here. We checked people’s properties to see if it was still standing. Or if not, we told a lot of people, ‘Yeah, your house is gone.’
I mean, McKenzie River Inn was a beautiful inn, a historic building. Bert deClerk owns it, great guy. We drove all the way down there and through all this smoke and like, ‘Sorry, Bert, your place has gone, man.’ But next door, the Eagle Rock Lodge was still there. You know, it just didn’t make any sense.
People really wanted to know what was going on here and they couldn’t get back in. So we told them. And then we cut trees out of the driveways and did all kinds of stuff. We had to empty some refrigerators. No power for that long and everything’s rotted. And then after the first two weeks or so there was an effort to help from the outside. Donations and gear. Money and equipment.
We were the ones who guided that to the place where it was needed, because we knew everybody. I’ll give you an example. There’s a family, the guy’s got MS and they had no power. He was coming back in and we got them a strong generator because he had to have a body lift to get him out of the wheelchair, and that needed electricity. The McKenzie River Trust, which is an organization that usually helps make sure that McKenzie River is clean and clear came in and they donated 12 generators. I went and picked them up and then I got those generators to the people who needed them the most.
I helped set up the relief centers. All the generators ran on gas. We didn’t have a gas station. So I would drive and buy hundreds of gallons of gas, every trip to Sisters, and come back and give out five gallon jugs of gasoline so their generators still worked.
Water was huge. Because there was no power, no one’s wells were working. So we had to bring in a lot of water. I was working with a couple of organizations at Sisters—faith-based organizations—and they donated a lot of stuff. Equipment to dig out. Rakes, shovels, chainsaws.
And it wasn’t just me for sure. I was just one guy. But there were a lot of different people that were doing this with different organizations. It was really beautiful how it all came together organically. And it happened like that. No one got paid to do that. There was no organization. We don’t have a government up here. It just needed to be done. And so a lot of people stepped up and did it.
I’ve been to the end of the world four times.
I was in Haiti during the revolution where they ousted Aristide. I was just young kid back then. I come from Oregon, you know—so mostly white —to Haiti where I had never seen people that dark. And I had no idea what language they were speaking at the time. I had no idea anything about them. It scared the shit out of me.
They had their revolution during Mardi Gras. They’re all French Catholics and it did not stop them from having Mardi Gras. There was no law enforcement, no hospitals. It was the end of the world and they were still partying. But because we had medics, they would bring us all of their dead and injured.
I saw a woman squat down between two parked cars and have a baby. We all ran out and tried to protect her and delivered the baby right in front of the presidential palace.
That was first time I’d ever seen anybody die right in front of me. We were patrolling the villages of Les Cayes and we get into this village and all of these people are jumping up and down and yelling some words I didn’t understand at the time. This guy had tried to steal the village television and they all thought that he was secret police from Papa Doc, who was a dictator there.
And so they just kicked the shit out of him. When we got there, my company commander wanted to show that we cared. I don’t know what the thinking was behind it, but we had to take this guy to a hospital to try to get him fixed. This guy was curb stomped by about three dozen people. But I was a young private. [My commander said] “Go get him.”
We pulled him in the back of a Humvee and everything’s soaked in shit and piss and and blood all over him. And so I got my gloves on and we put him in. Every move hurts him. Every bump on that dirt road, he was screaming, crying. And then he stopped and he went into something I had never heard before. It’s called agonal breathing where it’s just this horrible clicking sound in the back of your throat. Your body’s last ditch effort trying to survive.
And I’ll tell you, I wanted to kill him because I was so terrified of this. I didn’t know what that was. Every time he clicked, I wanted to just step on his throat and kill him. Just to have it done. It was horrible.
We found a police station without any electricity. The guys were around a burning barrel. And even though they protested, we dumped the guy there. I think he was dead by then. But then we left. We’re like, ‘All right, mission accomplished.’
What kind of mission is that?
The second time I was at the end of the world was in Iraq. I don’t mind talking about it anymore but I’d seen so much shit in Iraq. So much dead bodies. They mortared us every single day. So many firefights. I was a squad leader there and I would kick down doors, looking for bad guys and find a 65 year old woman terrified of me.
I didn’t want what happened in Haiti to happen to me again. I was a young kid in Haiti and my squad leader didn’t tell me anything about Haiti or Haitians. And so it was really easy to make them the other or to demonize them. Make them less than people because they looked different than me. They spoke different than me. Different religion, different customs. And I didn’t know any of them. So I was terrified of all of them.
So in Iraq, I didn’t want anybody in my squad to be as terrified as of them as I was when I was in Haiti. So I read the Qur’an. I bought The Idiot’s Guide to Iraqi History and I carried everywhere. Everybody made fun of me for it, but then they all wanted to know what was in that fucking book. I learned about the mandate system and how it became a country and then their customs and how there was more than one religious group in there. The Shiites and the Sunnis. I knew all about that shit before anybody else did. And I even learned Arabic to a degree where I can communicate enough with it.
As an infantry squad leader, I was only there for about four months until I got blown up and sent home. I had a couple of surgeries and it took a while for me to get on my feet again.
And then about a year later Hurricane Katrina happened. And so I went down to New Orleans. They had promoted me so I was a platoon sergeant, but they didn’t have any more officers so I became a platoon leader. Iraqi sand was still in the equipment that we were using to walk the streets in New Orleans. And we had a very similar job, to find bad guys and arrest them. A couple of the prisons had been evacuated because of the flood and they lost track of some of the prisoners and they thought they had run into the ninth district down there. So that’s what we did, go through the projects and look for bad guys. We didn’t find any bad guys. But we found a shark. The hurricane had thrown a shark on an overpass. It was like sharknado in the middle of I-10.
I found a lot of starving animals. Everybody left their animals on their balconies and we gave them a lot of MREs. I found some live holdouts too. Mimi was one, she was diabetic and she was going into anaphylactic shock. We saved her life. And then we found a lot of suicides. Found people who killed each other over candy bars. Fighting over resources. And then we came home.
So those are my other three apocalypses. And then this happened. I moved out here so shit like this wouldn’t happen,
I had the skill of remaining calm during really bad times. And I think that did serve me well.
My dad was really abusive when I was a kid. Physically abusive and he blew up at all the time. You never knew. So mostly my childhood was traumatic. And so I guess I was just used to bad shit happening. And I gotta figure out what I’m going to do. I don’t have time to freak out about shit, you know? And so in a way, I guess that helped. But I don’t know, it’s just a working theory.
Writing and art saved my life. I’ve seen so many people die. And also I think it does something to your psyche when people are trying to kill you. The first time we got mortared, I thought it was road construction or something. And then the second hit and I’m like, “Someone’s trying to kill me! They don’t know me.”
Our job was to help people. We were there to win hearts and minds. We weren’t there as an invading force, although, I would argue, that’s what we turned into. Honestly, our job was to help people. But the problem was that the people we were there to help looked exactly like the people who were shooting at us. And who we were supposed to protect those people from.
There were no uniforms in these wars. There wasn’t an army that was fighting against us. It was these poor people who had no economy and nothing left, and somebody would come in and say, “Hey, if you dig this hole, I’ll give you guys 50 bucks. All you have to do is dig a hole.”
And then the next family says, “Hey, if you put this thing in a hole, that’s already dug, I’ll give you some money.” And then next family it’s, “Hey, if you just bury this hole…”
What do you do if you have a family depending on you? And there’s nothing…nothing. What are you going to do?
So I don’t blame them. I’m not mad at anybody. Even the guys that blew me up and shot and killed my buddies. You know, I understand the situation sucks. But it’s how it is. There is no evil ideology, just desperate people. I think the only evil ideology came from people that profited off of this war, whoever they were, I don’t know.
I don’t have any ideas. I’m not really big into conspiracies. But I know that they were kept going because someone’s making money. There was no mission. There was no WMDs. There was no bad regime to topple. It was just us sitting there creating our own enemies.
Somebody would blow us up with the IED and then we’d go out and shoot them. And then all of their cousins and brothers and sisters are now our enemy. And then they’d come at us and then we’d shoot them. And then all their brothers and cousins, parents would be pissed off at us and come at us and we’d shoot them. So it was like a fractal, you know, it just kept going. But instead of getting smaller, [it got] exponentially larger. We just created a whole nation that hated us. Because we’re trying to protect them to death.
I think every word has an ocean of meaning. And there’s a lot of different connotations. I don’t like the word peace. I really don’t like it because it usually comes out of some politician’s mouth when they’re trying to figure out how to send more people to war.
Solitude’s really nice. Like a sanctuary. Ease. Rest. Peace, I don’t like it. It’s been used since the sixties and look where we’re at.
Serenity, I love serenity.
It’s still tough. It’s not something that you cure. It’s just something you have to figure out how to live with. There’s things that you can do to avoid the negative effects of post-traumatic stress and writing is definitely one of them. Art is definitely one of them. Avoiding triggers is one of them. Preparing yourself when you’re not going to be able to avoid triggers.
You probably didn’t notice, but when we were sitting at the restaurant for lunch today, there were three people. Yesterday at lunch, there was 19 people. I count everybody and I assess threats. I mean, I can’t help but to that. It’s just something that you do. Upstairs, we have those big windows. If I stand right in front of it, I think in the back of my head, somebody’s going to shoot me. That’s called silhouetting yourself in a linear danger zone. And I know right away, that’s ridiculous. No one is going to shoot me. I can’t stop it from happening.
I know the exits of everywhere I go, I know the best way to get out. It just flows through your head.
This is my new working theory. There’s so many religions out there and so many different ways to believe. And if you go by this code, then after you die, you go to a really awesome place or you go to a really shitty place. I don’t think that you have to wait until you’re dead to get there. You know, you can build it now. I think people put themselves in their own hells, and I’m just trying to build a nice place. This is our holy land. It’s very literal.”
-When have you seen people respond to a crisis at a grass roots level?
-We seem able to set our differences aside when responding to a natural disaster. Why?
-When have you been forced into a difficult situation?
-When have you misunderstood those around you? What did you do to change that?
-Sean talks about his ability to remain calm during really bad times, but it was a skill that grew out of a difficult childhood. Have you ever learned useful skills through trying times?
-Sean shares that writing and art have saved his life. What has saved your life?
-Talk about the notion of evil ideology vs. desperate people.
-What are your thoughts of the word peace?
-Where is your holy land? What do you do to create it?