JIM HIEBERT SAYS it’s all different now. In the ’60s, the kids used to put big blocks in their Arctic Cats and hold drag races outside the high school. You get a powerful enough engine into one of those snowmobiles and the front skis will come right up off the ground.
“It was wonderful back then,” says Hiebert, now seventy-two years old, decades removed from those days. “There’d be a football game at the school and they’d shut the mill down so people could come watch. It’s not like that anymore.”
Detroit, Oregon (population 180), sits on a tiny curve of land between Highway 22 and the Santiam River. It’s beautiful country, the hills lined with Douglas firs, the snowcap of Mount Jefferson visible in the near distance. Just west of town, the Detroit Dam funnels the river into a pristine reservoir. In high season the shoreline of Detroit Lake is a phalanx of RVs and boats. Since the bottom fell out of the timber industry some thirty years ago, tourism has drawn more people here than just about anything else. People go camping, they fish for trout, or they head into the forest and try to spot elk.
Hiebert is right: it’s not what it was; no place ever is. About a hundred forty years ago, Detroit got its start as a railroad company work camp. Soon the company went bankrupt, and since then, the town has lived off timber and tourism. It’s survived downturns in the lumber business, the disappearance of mill jobs, droughts that turned the reservoir dry. Of course it’s changed; everywhere changes.
But not everywhere disappears.
About twenty miles west of here on the highway, you start to see the first signs of what happened to Detroit three years ago: the blackened bottoms of trees and power lines, then the roadside Food Mart sign gouged and broken. Until finally, in the center of Detroit, between dozens of new home constructions, you’ll see lots in which all that stands is a brick chimney or a few warped tubes of plumbing, the rest of the house obliterated. In places, some of the surviving structures still stand, or parts of them, anyway—bandaged with plywood and particleboard. On those makeshift coverings, the street numbers of the homes are spray-painted in bright orange, there being a very limited sense of what the old neighborhood geography once looked like. Across the highway, among the trees, you’ll spot the gray foundations of new hillside houses, pushing farther into the wilderness, and beyond that, the thin, scorched trunks of trees that withstood the otherwise insatiable burning that changed this place forever.
In early September 2020, the Santiam fire—one of the most destructive in Oregon’s history—tore through Detroit, reducing most of the town to ash. In all, the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon burned about 1.2 million acres of land and left thousands of people homeless, including entire communities in the middle and far south of the state. Many who were forced to flee never came back.
It was, for a lot of people, a glimpse of what the world is becoming—summers hotter and drier, fires more catastrophic—the abstraction of climate change taking concrete form. In the three years since the fires, myriad lawmakers, academics, and community organizers have struggled to figure out what terms such as rebuilding and resilience mean in an era where the scale and frequency of climate disasters are starting to outpace our ability to bounce back. The result is a kind of ideological collision between those for whom resilience means nothing changes, no matter the calamity, and those who don’t believe that’s going to be possible much longer.
What does going back to normal mean when normal is the one thing that’s never coming back?
THE DAY SOUTHERN OREGON started to burn, Pam Marsh was on jury duty.
“I came out of the building and I just saw these huge plumes of smoke,” she says. “I picked up some people in Ashland who were evacuating, and I thought I’d try to take them to a hotel, but we couldn’t find one. They stayed with me that night.”
In the Oregon state legislature, Representative Marsh serves southern Jackson County, a stretch along the California border that saw some of the worst destruction during the 2020 wildfire season. In her district alone, the fires wiped out some twenty-five hundred homes, leaving somewhere between six thousand and eight thousand people homeless. Of the buildings destroyed, she said, roughly fifteen hundred were RVs or manufactured homes—homes much more likely to be occupied by older people, poorer people, and people for whom English wasn’t a first language.
“I was able to get a fire vehicle escort through the community a day or two after, and I saw vast acres of nothing but rubble,” says Representative Marsh. “I thought there must be hundreds of people dead. The miracle was we didn’t see that kind of carnage.”
In the immediate aftermath of almost any disaster in this part of the world, all kinds of response mechanisms kick in, a chaotic jumble of government and community efforts that, quite often, have very little cohesion. A lot of the land that burned in Oregon is federal, and so falls under the purview of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Then there’s state forestry officials, local fire departments, emergency managers, the Red Cross, individual shelters, makeshift operations centers, various philanthropic groups. What these entities are doing, or even where they’re located, can sometimes be difficult to figure out. Some of the earliest information Marsh found about her district’s emergency operations centers was gleaned from a Facebook post.
The same kind of fracture persists well after the first few days and weeks, into the recovery period that, in the case of the Oregon fires, is now in its third year. You can see it in places like Detroit, where immaculate new houses now stand next to boarded-up, fire-wrecked structures, an unevenness that’s at least partially indicative of who had the money to rebuild, who had fire insurance, who knew which grants and loans and support mechanisms to tap.
“There’s been tremendous confusion and anger and trauma,” says Representative Marsh. “If you look at single-family owners who quickly moved into rebuilding because they had the resources, that was traumatic for them, and they coped by far the best. It’s been almost three years since the fire, and the reality for lots and lots of people is: still no stable home.”
During the three years since the fires, Oregon has seen all manner of climate chaos—ice storms that brought massive power outages, days where the temperature touched the 110s, smoke events so large they sent the air quality plummeting as far east as New York City. The frequency of these things, the ways in which they are quickly becoming more normal than abnormal, has forced a lot of people to start defining climate resilience in very different ways.
“A few years ago I wouldn’t talk about adaptation because I felt like we were giving in,” says Representative Marsh. “Now we have to talk about it.”
But the idea of adaptation to the environment rather than control of it is still, for many people, a tough sell. For decades, the default mode of thinking about communities and their surrounding landscape in this part of the world quite often assumed the latter to be subservient to the former. To change that impression—and to do it quickly and dramatically enough to start minimizing the impact of potentially larger climate disasters years down the road—is a sharp departure.
“I think we need to make sure resiliency doesn’t mean going back to the way it was before,” says Cassandra Moseley. “Because there definitely is an old-school notion of resiliency where we rebuild and then it’s going to go back to the way it was before.”
Moseley is a research professor at the Institute for Resilient Organizations, Communities, and Environments at the University of Oregon. She spends a lot of her time thinking about how people prepare for and recover from catastrophes like the one that hit Oregon in 2020. That means thinking about engineering fixes—building multiple roads out of small towns, for example—but also considering the way a community works on a social level, how people live together.
“So you have to think about things like communication, knowing your neighbor, having a plan: Are you ready to leave? Do you know where you’re going?
“We need to be nimble, because we might have fire, we might have smoke, we might have an ice storm,” she says. “We have to be ready for a lot.”
And that sheer variety of potential disasters—the many ways in which life in the Anthropocene has become deeply unpredictable—has led to more uncomfortable questions, such as, At what point does a place become so susceptible to burning or flooding or storms that its residents have to start thinking about the viability of remaining there?
“In 2018, two years after I was elected, we had six weeks of choking smoke,” says Representative Marsh. “And some people really started to wonder whether this was a place where they could continue to live.”
But the idea of leaving is rarely ever straightforward. Besides the resources it requires, there’s also the emotional cost of leaving home. Then there’s the question of the destination.
“If you add up all the hazards, things are less clear,” says Moseley. “Maybe you shouldn’t live in a fire state, don’t live in a flood plain, don’t live in an earthquake zone, mudslides. . . . The question of retreat becomes a lot more complicated—retreat to where?”
ABOUT ONCE A YEAR I take a drive along Highway 22.
I live an hour north of Detroit, in Clackamas County, which in 2020 also saw massive swaths of forest burn. In early September of that year, just before we were put on evacuation notice, my wife gave birth to our second child. We returned home from the hospital and, two days later, couldn’t see the edge of our backyard through the living room window for all the smoke in the air. The sky took on this gray-orange hue, and outside, a thick layer of ash lined everything. We packed our bags and waited to see if the fire was going to jump the river, the last buffer before our house. It didn’t. We got lucky.
Every time I drive to the places that weren’t so lucky, I see how things have changed over the past three years. On my most recent trip I notice that the remains of a motel gutted by the fire have now finally been cleared away. So too has an old pickup truck, fully burned, out the bed of which once hung a limp Trump 2020 flag.
In Detroit, most of the lots along the town’s handful of residential streets are in some stage of rebuilding. A couple of painters put the final touches of white on a garage door, next to a van that advertises the services of a company called Blessed Construction LLC. There are real estate agent lawn signs all over the place.
In a way, it feels similar to places I’ve visited before when reporting about the climate crisis. I’m reminded of a trip I took to southern Florida a few years back, where I toured an expensive little barrier at the edge of the shore, presumably to stop storm surges during hurricanes, that king tides were already inundating. A salesman had flown in to sell the richer residents on a potential workaround—houses designed to float in a flood. During that trip, I spoke to a mayor of a small town along the southern coast who told me he’d started telling his residents to brace for the likelihood that their grandchildren wouldn’t be able to live in the town anymore, that perhaps it’d be usable as a shipping port or something similar, but its days as an inhabitable residential community were likely coming to an end.
I’m reminded of another trip, to southernmost Louisiana, where I spoke to a man living along a shred of land that is slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. His house, like almost all the structures in that part of the state, rose on stilts, and, a ways up the road, the government had started construction on a levee that ran the width of the little peninsula on which his house sat. But the levee was upland from him, and the unspoken message to everyone south of that point was clear: in the long run, we don’t think we can save your homes.
And I’m reminded of the place I grew up, the home of my childhood—Qatar, in the Middle East. One of the richest countries on Earth that, should temperatures continue rising, may well become unfit for human habitation in the next few decades. There’s no blueprint for this kind of conversation, no politically easy way to talk about what it means to adapt rather than try to dominate. It’s new, all of this is new.
On my most recent trip to Detroit, I find Jim Hiebert training. He’s been a runner since his youth and he comes to the same street every day to do laps. We talk a while about growing up here, and whether he’s worried about another fire. He points to the thinning trees on the hills just north of town.
“All that timber’s so dry,” he says. “It would burn in a heartbeat.”
But when I ask him if he ever thinks about leaving, he says no. This is home.
Sarah Grew is a visual artist living in Eugene, Oregon. Her Ghost Forest series transforms the destructive force of wildfires into photographs made of ash. The carbon from fires colors her photographic emulsion as she captures the forest memory, accentuating both the fragility of life and the danger of climate change.
This story was made possible by the generous support of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.