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Trail of Destruction: The Santiam Wildfire

Wildfire Summary

Lionshead Fire:  204,500+ acres burned; over 280 residences and other structures destroyed

Beachie Creek Fire193,600+ acres burned; over 1,300 residences and other structures destroyed

P-515 Fire 4,609 acres burned

This was easily my most challenging photo essay. This essay documents some of the damage the Lionshead, Beachie Creek and P-515 fires (collectively known as the Santiam Fire as they would all eventually merge) caused on Oregon's Route 22 in Santiam Pass during the late summer of 2020. The wildfire's perimeter was an hour from my residence in Bend, Oregon. While I did not get images of the actual fires, I was able to get as much as I could both during and after the event, given travel restrictions. These wildfires literally exploded overnight, burning tens of thousands of acres in mere minutes.....not days or weeks. It took two months after the fires initially started (along with the removal of some 30,000 trees) before a 40-mile stretch of burned-out Route 22 was reopened to the public. The day after reopening, I drove the length of the affected route and documented what I saw. I made these images with a heavy heart. There's sadness, tragedy and death here. Lives lost; homes and businesses destroyed; dreams gone up in smoke.

From Sept. 7th to 9th, 2020, an estimated 11% of the Oregon Cascades burned in several large fires in western Oregon. The fires, which stretched from Clackamas County at the north to Douglas County at the south, burned more area of the Oregon Cascades than had burned in the previous 36 years combined and likely exceeded the area burned in any single year in at least the last 120 years. This, according to a study published in Geophysical Research Letters by John Abatzoglau of the University of California, Merced; Mojtaba Sadegh of Boise State University; and Larry O’Neill and David Rupp of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. 

"The findings reinforce the role compounding extremes may have when assessing wildfire hazard risks," O’Neill said. "Understanding the meteorological and climate drivers of these kinds of fire events is important for management of forest lands and for recognizing the patterns and preparing for such weather events in the future. The individual wind and humidity conditions were rare but not unprecedented, but the combination of the two was - and individually, they were some of the worst conditions we’ve seen since we began keeping records from instrumented data.”

Researchers found that a series of climate and weather factors, including low humidity, high easterly wind speeds and extreme fuel dryness due to drought conditions in previous months enabled and drove rapid rates of fire spread in September. They also found that 10 of 13 other very large fire events in western Oregon since 1900 were associated with hot, dry summers and all 13 fires were associated with strong easterly winds.

“As the climate warms, the atmosphere will have a larger capacity to pull moisture from soils and forest vegetation than it does now, which will increase the severity of droughts and dryness of potential fire fuels,” he said. “So when we do get these similar strong easterly wind events, those winds may be blowing over drier, more flammable fuels. The implication is that the fire risk throughout Oregon will probably increase significantly, and that we can also expect longer fire seasons, including in areas we typically think are not prone to extreme wildfire.”

Within these images, there are observations to make, truths to be faced, lessons to be learned, hope to cling to, warnings to heed, choices to make and actions to take. Select images from this photo essay were featured in a full front page, full article spread in the Bend Bulletin.

~ Bill Breneman

Full front page and full article spread of<br />
images of the 2020 Santiam Wildfire
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