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Up in Flames

When my house burned down



It is a very clear memory: Heading away from the house, smoke hanging thick in the early morning air, in the backseat of a car packed with photographs, valuables, and the brand-new jean overalls I had gotten school shopping. I was 7 years old when my family was forced to evacuate our home in southeast Bend as the Skeleton Fire roared over the dusty ridge between our neighborhood and dry BLM land. All my family's sentimental and valuable belongings—including our oversized Siamese cat, Topsy—were hastily stuffed into our two cars. I remember I looking back up at our house, a wooden almost A-frame style built with huge triangular west-facing front windows, now dark and vacant, and watching the frame fall behind the hill as we rounded the corner.

Even more vivid is the memory of rounding the same corner a few days later and seeing nothing but a pile of blackened rubble where the house once stood. It was completely disorienting, as if an enormous crane had picked up the house replaced it with ashes and charred debris.

Started by a lightning strike, that fire damaged or destroyed 30 houses and blackened 17,000 acres of rural Bend in 1996. Almost 20 years later, looking at the pictures of flames lapping over dry junipers still makes my stomach turn. The photo that hits me the hardest is of a house up the road from ours engulfed in flames one that ran on the front page of the local paper.

Fire hits close to home in Central Oregon. It's the natural disaster that's most likely to strike the region, at least in summer. It's that time of year again, when plumes of smoke occasionally billow on the horizon and give pause: Is that a storm cloud low in the sky, or a forest fire?

In this issue, we send writer Kristine Swann to the front lines of the fire on the Warm Springs Reservation, publisher Aaron Switzer discovers a fire pit near his house, and James Williams, whose fiancée is currently deployed at a fire in southern Washington, talks with a veteran squad chief about the mortal risks of fighting forest fires.

We hope our coverage will encourage readers to be mindful of the high risk of fire. Douse your campfires, crush out your cigarettes and thank a local fire fighter.

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