Melanie Stanley lost her home and business in Blue River, Oregon in the Holiday Farm Fire of 2020. The Meyers General Store and Liquor Shop had been in her family for 29 years. I interviewed her on the cement slab that remained.
We talked about the fire that devastated the town of Blue River, her commitment to rebuild and both her dreams and fears about what the future might hold for her community.
“We are sitting on the cement slab that used to be my store. It was Meyers General Store and Liquor Shop in Blue River. It’s been in my family for 29 years. September 7th of 2020, it burned to the ground in the Holiday Farm Fire.
We started fire season in April this year instead of in July. If we continue that trend….
When our fire hit, I think we’re still one of the biggest in the shortest time span. Our fire took out 176,000 acres in less than three days. Most of its growth was in 36 hours. It traveled like 26 miles in 24 or 36 hours.
I was working inside the store when the call went out for the brush fire that started. My niece went running to the fire department and power went out within a few minutes of the call. Then I got a phone call from the emergency manager for Lane County and he said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna start evacuating some people to the high school.’
So I went down to the school to help wrangle trailers and trucks, and try to get ’em comfortable. They were just gonna wait it out down there. So we sat down there for about an hour, got everybody kind of calmed down and then I was running back and forth between the school, which is about three quarters of out to a mile from where we’re sitting, to here just kind of checking in between both places because when the power goes out in Blue River, everybody kind of congregates at my store. Especially because there was a fire, everybody was more anxious and heightened so when anybody needed anything, they usually just came to the store.”
“So level one is just be ready, pay attention. Know that there’s something going on around you. You don’t have to start worrying that much, but just be aware of your surroundings.
Level two is be set. Get your stuff in your car. If you have big animals, just go. Level two is also for people who have family members who have heavy disabilities or heavy medical needs.
And then level three is get out now. You don’t have a choice. Get out as fast as you can.
We never got a one or a two. There was no time for a one or a two. The fire had spotted out in front of itself and a second fire had started and it was getting ready to overrun the top of Blue River.
It was pretty surreal because we could see the fire coming on the hill behind me. It was coming over the top of it. We could see the glow. So, we made sure to get all of our family out, we made sure to get our neighbor out and I started lo grabbing stuff outta my store. I grabbed my money box, one of my jump drives. And that was all I could think to grab because I knew I needed to get back to my house and grab all of our medications and clothes.
I ran back to the house, started grabbing all of our medications and paperwork and then something told me to grab pictures off the wall. I got my parents’ wedding picture, My grandparents’ wedding picture, my husband and mine’s wedding picture. And the last family picture that I have with my mom in it, and ran outta my house. So we got all of our animals loaded up and drove outta here just before midnight. When we left, both sides of the road were on fire. I would never wish that on anybody.
But the one thing that I can say about the entire evacuation was, it was fairly impressive to watch all of the cars leave because we all traveled down this road in one straight line. There wasn’t one accident. We barely hit the brakes and everybody went 40, 45 miles an hour in a straight line. 1500 cars by the time it was over with, because every person that was evacuated had to evacuate the same direction.
It was probably the smoothest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. We joke that the tourists are the problem on our highway because somehow in the middle of a catastrophe, we didn’t have one accident. And it was because it was mostly locals.
It was 12 o’clock at night and somehow we got out. Everybody seemed to keep their composure. We stopped in Vida just to make sure we still had everybody, to make sure that we were all together. And then we stopped in Waterville to regroup and to fall apart for a second. We went to Thurston to meet up with everybody else. We knew we were far enough away to kind of take in what the hell had just happened.
At that point in time, we still didn’t know how far the fire had traveled. About 12:30 or 12:45, we knew that Blue River was probably gone, but we didn’t get confirmation until about 2:00 AM. Somebody had posted that the Oregon state police had confirmed that Blue River was lost. That was hard.
I could have come back earlier than everybody else because of my position with the Upper McKenzie Fire Department board. The fire chief had offered to get me in because I could have gotten a pass. But as a family, we needed to see it together. So I waited until we could be here at the same time. We never got to see it until seven and a half weeks after the fire.”
Will you rebuild?
“My identity is in this place. I’ve been here for almost 30 years. I can’t see myself anywhere else. There have been times in the last 10 months that I could tell you that a vacation someplace else would be nice. But this is home. I can’t let this place die. Not that I’m the only thing that matters. But I have fought hard with my family and with some very key community members to keep this place alive and this fire wiped us off the map. So I have to help bring it back.
I worry about gentrification. I worry that people aren’t gonna be able to afford to buy some of the properties that have gone up for sale. I’m worried that we’re not gonna get enough families, that we’re gonna get a lot of people who are gonna just build second homes and not be part of our community. I worry because we lost a lot of generational families because of this fire. We lost a lot of our old timers because they won’t rebuild because they don’t have the time or the energy. And I don’t blame him. A lot of ’em are in their eighties.
I didn’t used to cry as much as I do since the fire. But I worry that we’ll never really be able to recover. My hope is that we can come back better than we were, even before the fire. Before the fire, like my business, this was doing fine, but overall Blue River itself was kind of flailing. We had a lot of closed storefronts. We had a lot of stuff that just kind of needed some help. So I’m really hoping that we can consider this like a blank canvas and rebuild with some purpose. When we came here 30 years ago, everything was already decided for us as a community. My store was already a grocery store and next door was already built as a gas station. I feel like we have a really unique opportunity to rebuild what we want for the next generation and to decide what Blue River’s gonna look like for the next 50 years. And so I just hope we get it right.
Oh goodness. This is probably gonna make me cry. My mom died in 2000, but my mom was a volunteer extraordinaire. She kind of instilled that in all of us kids and my sister and I. She made it important that we care about community. The fire department building that burned to the ground was named after my mom.
Her name was Pat Stanley. The firefighters that were here saved part of the sign that still says her name on it. It’s hung at the upper McKenzie fire department. So we will hang it in the new department. She instilled a sense of community from a very young age.
So that is honestly about the only thing that keeps me going is knowing that I need to help the community. Even though sometimes it’s rough. And I hate living in a trailer. I want my house back and it sucks. This all sucks. It just sucks a little less some days.
It’s hard having to tell people that they can’t come home yet. I’ve been a community advocate. I’ve dealt with politicians and county people and Red Cross and housing liaisons and all that other stuff for my community, trying to help them navigate stuff. And how can I tell somebody, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come home yet because there’s no place for you.’ It’s been hard. But that’s the only thing that keeps me going is my community and hoping that I can get ’em back.
So, I hope that she’s proud of everything that we’re doing.”
-Is your identity attached to a place? If so, where? And why?
-When has your community been in crisis?
-Where does your community gather to share information? Is it in person? Online?
-If you had only a few minutes to gather your things, what would you take?
-When have you seen people work well together?
-If you could start from scratch, what would you like your community to look like?
-Have you ever approached a crisis as an opportunity?