Before first light hit any of the famed pools along Oregon’s North Umpqua on the morning of September 8th, the Archie Creek Fire had already begun. I woke up at 5 a.m., when the power went out at the Dogwood Motel, and I opened the door to darkness and an eerie wind. It was blowing so strong it was snapping tree limbs—very unusual for a pre-dawn September morning on the North.
It’s always dark when you’re heading out to fish on this river, but it was darker than usual that morning. Something just didn’t feel right. It was downright spooky. As we were about to head out, my buddy Andy was just returning from upriver. He told us they’d spotted a fire, a big one. He showed me a photo covered with flames, and he’d been told another one had just started near Glide. We were in between the two.
Logic would dictate doing the smart thing and leaving immediately. But steelhead fishermen aren’t very bright. Besides, it was my friend Doug’s first time on the river. He’d driven all the way from Montana, having just arrived the night before, with his gal and puppy in tow. I figured he needed to at least see a couple nearby runs, and fish until we felt it was no longer safe. I’ve been guiding for many years in the Pacific Northwest, and have seen my share of fires near the river. I figured we’d be OK as long as we carefully monitored the situation.
We quickly got three spots in—even picked up a fish—before heading back to the Dogwood to see what was up. On our way, we spotted a huge plume of smoke near Susan Creek Falls, making it look like the Dogwood itself was on fire. When we pulled in, Norman was going about his daily chores, working on his impeccable gardens—aware, but not yet overly concerned, about the encroaching fire. The Dogwood, in tiny Idleyld Park, has been in Norman Call’s family for 50 years, and, like most locals, he has grown accustomed to having wildfires come close on occasion. No fire trucks yet, no evacuation notices yet, just another nearby fire.
But this one was different. The wind was howling, and that smoke just up the road by Susan Creek was getting closer. We decided to pack and be ready to leave. Five minutes into packing, I heard a commotion outside, and saw people pointing at a tree across the river that was smoking. Then it burst into flames. Time to go. I turned around and saw the trees behind the property starting to smoke, just as a fireman pulled in and informed us all of the now-obvious danger. After quickly helping Norman load up his cherished new tractor, we rushed off as ashes and smoke began to engulf one of my favorite places in all of steelheading.
After driving the 20 miles to Roseburg through smoke-filled air, I wished safe journeys to my friends, then headed south, toward home. Already in shock, little did I know that I was heading straight toward two other catastrophic fires. As I approached Medford from the north, a sign was just being put out stating that I-5 was closed. Something seriously wrong had to be happening for officials to close Oregon’s only north-south Interstate the day after Labor Day.
Accessing the Rogue Valley via backroads gave me a clear, early-stage view of what would become two of the most tragic fires in Oregon history: the Almeda Fire to the southwest, and the Obenchain Fire to the southeast, both beginning to grow. How much more fucked up could this morning get? I had just raced away from fire and smoke, spending the drive trying to process what was happening to one of my all-time favorite watersheds. And now I was staring at another fire that looked close to my home, with a third coming from the other direction.
The Almeda Fire, pushed by 50 mph winds, would go on to annihilate the towns of Talent and Phoenix, killing three people and destroying nearly 3,000 homes and buildings. Back on the North Umpqua, the Archie Creek Fire burned 131,542 acres and 109 homes in Idleyld Park and Glide. One of these homes was the log cabin belonging to Steamboat Inn founders and conservation icons Frank and Jeannie Moore. The North is part of so many people’s lives, but few more so than Frank’s. As Frank put it, “What happens up there is nature. The forest is burned, but it’ll grow back.”
The bedrock in the river remains unscathed, the pools unchanged, and the wild steelhead, which seem to always find shelter, will continue swimming upstream.
The fires that started on September 8th scarred much of western Oregon, especially southwestern Oregon. But they also generated a varied and unprecedented outpouring of community support, from the community of neighbors surrounding the affected towns, to the community of flyfishers that has been making pilgrimages to the Umpqua’s Fly Only section since 1952. The Rogue Credit Union’s Wildfire Relief Fund raised more than a million dollars in less than two weeks. But many smaller funds have also assisted, and donations continue to help those who’ve lost their homes, belongings, and/or businesses. If you’d like to donate, here are a few different options:
Rogue Valley Relief Fund: MRGFOUNDATION.ORG/DONATE-TO-ROGUEVALLEY-RELIEF-FUND/
Rogue Credit Union: (matches all donations up to $100,000) ROGUECU.ORG /COMMUNITY/DONATE
Archie Creek Fire: Glide Revitalization GLIDEREVITALIZATION.COM
Greater Douglas United Way: GDUWAY.ORG/CAMPAIGNS/FIRERELIEF- FUND/
Go Fund Me, North Umpqua Community: GOFUNDME.COM/NORTH-UMPQUA-COMMUNITY