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

For one couple, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire all but erased their home, leaving little except memories and a tan chimney spire.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

transcript

bars
0:00/0:46
-0:00

transcript

Bootleg Fire Victim Tours Remains of Burned Home

The Bootleg Fire, which has burned hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Oregon, is the nation’s largest active blaze. Marc Valens showed us how the fire destroyed his home.

I never know whether to call this the front — this really is the front, but usually wherever you show up, or you call that the front door so. Like some of my tractors down there, the wheels melted. So there’s a puddle of aluminum underneath. And I hadn’t even known that my backhoe had an aluminum head on the engine. So it melted off, which exposed the cylinders and the pistons, and so all that burned so there’s nothing left of that.

The Bootleg Fire, which has burned hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Oregon, is the nation’s largest active blaze. Marc Valens showed us how the fire destroyed his home.CreditCredit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

By Sergio Olmos

Aug. 1, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

BEATTY, Ore. — Marc Valens washed his hands in the rubble of what was once his home, in the bowl where he used to make salad. There was something almost normal about it all: the clink and clank of lids and pots as he stood at the still-intact sink and stove.

But any sense of normalcy was an illusion. Much of his home and belongings were gone, swallowed up by the largest wildfire currently burning in America, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon.

The frame of a chair sat amid the ash where the living room used to be. Except for the tall spire of the tan-rock chimney, the outdoor sink and stove and a few other things, there was little else. The rest was rubble and ash — even the aluminum rims of his car melted, leaving a silver puddle in the dirt.

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

Image

Marc Valens washing his hands at the outdoor kitchen that survived the fire. It now serves as the only working kitchen while he and his wife camp on their property.Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

The Bootleg Fire has consumed a wide swath of southern Oregon forest — 413,000 acres, an area the size of Portland, Seattle, Sacramento and New York City combined. It has burned since July 6 and remains only 53 percent contained. The fire, the third-largest blaze in Oregon since 1900, has mostly burned in a remote, sparsely populated area in and near the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Only 161 homes have been destroyed, a low number for a wildfire that immense.

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

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Valens walked slowly with his hands clasped behind his back, assessing what remained with his wife, Anne Golden. He kicked aside some of the wreckage on a charred sled.

“I think it’s still usable,” he said.

Mr. Valens has been sleeping in a tent near the rubble, returning home as soon as evacuation orders were lifted. The outhouse burned, so a neighbor brought him a new one. His brother brought him a small trailer.

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

Image

Charred remains of the caretakers’ home at Moondance Ranch.Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Mr. Valens and Ms. Golden lived in the house at Moondance Ranch for 50 years, a short drive from Beatty, an unincorporated town about 40 miles north of the California state line. They divided their time there and at their second home in the city of Ashland. He is a retired lawyer who spent a lifetime specializing in environmental and Native American cases. She works as a business consultant and serves on the board of a local hospital.

“This is my hippie van,” Mr. Valens said as he toured his property, pointing to the burned-out hulk of his 1960s Chevrolet camper van. “When I turned 21, I took a year driving across the West Coast, Canada, down through New England to the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Up close amid the rubble, there was no pattern or logic to what survived and what did not. The picnic table on a patch of grass emerged unharmed, pristinely and surreally spared from the flames. On the fireplace was a small ceramic souvenir — a miniature bus with a demon on top.

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

Earlier this summer, punishing heat waves gripped the Pacific Northwest. In Portland, temperatures reached as high as 116 degrees, and a majority of the state has been primed to burn while undergoing severe drought. The past few weeks have felt especially chaotic, as climate change has helped make extreme weather and extreme disaster commonplace in the region.

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

In the aftermath of the fire, Mr. Valens and Ms. Golden are uncertain whether they and others who lost their homes will receive any state or federal aid. In a meeting with President Biden and a group of governors on Friday, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon asked the president for flexibility in using federal disaster-relief money in sparsely populated areas, which are currently ineligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, a spokesman said.

Image

Mr. Valens showing pictures of the property before the fire.Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

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

Image

Melted metal from a burned vehicle on the property.Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

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

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

Image

Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times

Leave a Reply