Although I huddled inside my house for more than a week during September of 2020, evading choking smoke as wildfires raged 20 miles southeast of me (and indeed all over Oregon), and though I read the news accounts of lives turned upside down by the wildfires, the reality of the wildfires' impact on the people of my state did not hit me until I ventured along the Santiam Highway in November. Since a central part of my photography of late has been abstractions from weathered metal and concrete, I had thought to see if the intense heat of the Beachie Creek Fire had left something behind that I might transform into beauty of a sort. But I was unprepared for the emotional impact.
Traveling up one back road with fried cars and desolate chimneys scattered through the charred woods left me with a feeling that it would be disrespectful to pull into someone's driveway and photograph the devastation left of their dreams. So I drove back down to the main Highway to regroup. In the town of Gates a blossom of char hailed me as I drove past a gutted gas station from the mid 20th century whose walls and roof were still standing. Although I know that having one's livelihood wiped out by fire may be no less heart-wrenching than one's home, it felt different somehow and I began to photograph there and across the highway at other commercial buildings.
What came to me in the process was a sense that someone should document this devastation for those who come after us, and even for those like I had been, vaguely aware but not engaged emotionally. Yes, the news crews had swept in on the tail of the fire to document torn lives, but that is a service of the moment. I thought that perhaps an eye like mine might bring to the awareness of others a more sustained engagement with that loss.
A month later I drove to the town of Otis, near Lincoln City on the coast, where the Echo Mountain Fire had raged. I pulled into one neighborhood of mobile homes and immediately felt the same, almost overpowering, grief for the losses my neighbors had sustained, tied to a desire to save the memory of that loss in a visual way.
I approached one resident whose home had been spared because he had cleared brush away (perhaps amplified by some randomness in the path the fire took). I told him I was drawn to create a record of the devastation of this fire, yet wondered if it was ghoulish of me to do so. We talked for 30 minutes or so and eventually he told me that he thought it would be OK if I photographed there, and if anyone else asked what I was up to tell them that "Jeff said it was OK."
So I worked there for 3 hours or so capturing the broad sense of the devastation of human lives as well as making purely abstract photographs that one might call simply beautiful were the context not known.
Then on December 22, I spent two days photographing in Blue River, East of Eugene. I had thought that this would be even more emotionally fraught for me due to my memories of stopping in the Whitewater Cafe after many backpacking trips with my dad. Just imagine being out in the wilderness as a young teenager eating freeze-dried bean dishes every night for a week and what a contrast it was to afterward sit at a table in the Whitewater Cafe with a bowl of Blackberry Cobbler a la mode on its way down!
Indeed the town was mostly ash, dominated by an I-beam support for the gas station roof drooping from the intense heat so that it would fit well into Dali's painting, The Persistence of Memory. One of the townspeople confirmed that the Cafe was where I had remembered it, with two walls and an old stove all that remained from the Holiday Farm Fire. Another said that the town had already been pretty devastated by the impoverishment caused by the highway bypass decades ago, and the consequent meth additions that seem to be ravishing much of underemployed small-town America.
The folks were cautiously welcoming of this intruder; one walked me over to his car that was perfectly white on the driver's side and a fire-kissed caramel-color on the other, with melted door locks and headlight. Another gentleman rolled up in his truck to check me out and we talked for quite a while.
I began, finally, to think that perhaps I could be of use to those whose lives have been torn asunder, using this odd talent I have to find the Phoenix arising from the literal ash. Perhaps those who view these works will be moved to buy them for their beauty or poignancy and I will, in turn, send that money, less materials costs, to the survivors of these fires.
Jack Straton, December 2020