Wildfire dispatch from an Oregon farm

One week ago, Elizabeth Whitman was weeding beets in rural Oregon, unaware of the encroaching fires. One week later, she’s holed up with her partner in Seattle, unsure what comes next.

We were weeding beets late in the afternoon on Labor Day when my coworker Amy asked if we’d received the emergency alert on our phones. 

It warned of “hot, dry, and potentially historic” winds, she said, and something about ignition sources.

I had not gotten the alert. Nor had another employee who was weeding with us on the 22-acre organic vegetable farm in Oregon where we worked, and where several of us also lived. We agreed that the warning sounded ominous, then returned to pulling pigweed.

Within an hour, a haze had moved in, filtering the sunlight to a thin pink. That evening, as we sat down for our nightly, socially distanced dinner under a walnut tree, the sun glowed red in the west. To the south, a fog of smoke obscured trees and hills. 

Amy pulled out her phone. Northeast of the farm was a fire of a few hundred acres called the Beachie Creek Fire, she said, scrolling and tapping. Near that was another blaze called the Lionshead Fire.

I envisioned pushing chest-deep through the frigid South Santiam River, which abuts the western edge of the farm.

Erin, who manages the farm with her partner, Theo, began thinking out loud. If we had to leave, we should go west, she mused. I envisioned pushing chest-deep through the frigid South Santiam River, which abuts the western edge of the farm, then retreated from those thoughts, feeling abashed and alarmist. We weren’t there yet.

My partner Steven and I arrived at Persephone Farm in early August, from a farm elsewhere in Oregon. Before that, we had lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where we worked as reporters and where wildfires were extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change that I mostly read about from afar. 

[Subscribe to our 2x-weekly newsletter and never miss a story.]

Even as a relative newcomer, I felt at home at Persephone, where Steven and I wanted to learn by doing, to prepare us for a farm of our own someday. We fell in easily with the others who lived there: Amy, Erin, and Theo, and the owners, Jeff and Elanor. 

Jeff started Persephone Farm in 1985, and Elanor joined in 1990. Over the decades, Jeff has linked his life and soul with the land, or so I’ve gleaned from a draft of a book he is writing about the experience. But in recent years, the farm has struggled financially. Jeff’s health is also declining, and so for the last few seasons, Theo and Erin have managed the farm. This year, COVID-19 hit.

Elizabeth Whitman Noon Wednesday at the farm, with irrigation pipe running across the road and a barely discernible Moon in front of it.

And now, wildfires.

On Tuesday morning, I awoke to air that was sharp with smoke. I had a scheduled day off, so I stayed inside. Searching for distraction, I worked on an old Sunday crossword puzzle, looked up pictures of alder trees, and researched no-till farming. By 2 p.m., Steven had finished work and returned to our home. He felt woozy, he said. 

From there, time began moving like an accordion, bunching and then drawing out, spurts of activity surrounded by the immobility of uncertainty. I don’t remember precisely when I packed my things, but I do recall stuffing a wool shirt, fleece pullover, and down vest into my backpack, then extracting them when I remembered it was September. Instead, I began selecting belongings that were gifts from family—a watercolor from one of my sisters, a potholder knitted by my mother. Clean underwear became an afterthought.

Around 4 p.m,. I went outside. Rolls of dark, thick clouds clogged the sky to the south. The sun glowed red, again, above a purple horizon. I ran into Erin, who said that Jeff and Elanor wanted to defend the farm with irrigation sprinklers.

My head felt heavy and explosive and implosive, all at the same time, accompanied by an ache that stretched to my ears.

Unlike many farms, Persphone does not use drip irrigation. Instead, it pumps water from the adjacent river into a system of 40-foot aluminum pipes and sprinklers that we break down and build anew each day. Irrigation duties consist of dissembling anywhere from a few pieces of pipe to a dozen and moving them to water new rows of crops. It is generally an unpopular task, but now it could help save the farm. 

Erin, Theo, Amy, Steven, Elanor, and I fanned out across fields to collect pieces of pipe. Jeff, whose health issues keep him from strenuous physical activity, watched from his porch and offered direction. Later, we learned that he would go inside and cry with gratitude and fear. 

As joints clicked into place, a web of pipe expanded around the farm, tracing paths it would never ordinarily go, stretched at angles and into curves we otherwise always tried to avoid. My head felt heavy and explosive and implosive, all at the same time, accompanied by an ache that stretched to my ears. Every conscious breath reminded me of the pinch in my throat.

By now I was refreshing fire and evacuation maps on my phone whenever I could. North of us, perhaps 40 miles as the crow flies, the historic winds had fanned the Beachie Creek Fire from less than 500 acres to more than 131,000. The Lionshead Fire, east of that, had expanded to similar size. Both fires had ripped through the Santiam Canyon, where people who believed Monday that they should evacuate on Tuesday awoke that morning to walls of flames. South of us burned a new conflagration, the Holiday Farm Fire. Persephone Farm sat between expanding bands of burning land.

Irrigation as fire prevention at Persephone Farm
Elizabeth Whitman Irrigation sprinklers preemptively douse the road and a farm structure at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday.

I didn’t want to wait until the last minute to leave, but I also was reluctant to go. If we stayed and fire came, we would have no control over the blaze, and it would threaten our lives. If we stayed and fire never came, we still would have been forced inside by the worsening air, still would have breathed in smoke. With the sprinklers set up, we could do little else to protect Persephone. Our presence at the farm, I realized, was futile. 

On Wednesday, Erin and Amy rose early and drove to the market in Portland with a truck full of vegetables. What else was there to do, with tubs of kale, lettuce, spring onions, fennel already harvested, washed, and packed? Jeff, we learned that morning, had had trouble breathing the night before, so Elanor had taken him to a hotel in town where he could inhale more easily. Within the day he would be in the local hospital, then transferred to a larger hospital in Salem after the fires triggered an evacuation.

Evacuation alerts were being issued ever closer, including in southern parts of our own Linn County. Our cars were packed and pointed outward, awaiting a decision. Around noon, Theo said that he wouldn’t want to drive at night. Steven and I said we favored leaving sooner rather than later. No one said, “Let’s go,” but somewhere in those moments, the scales of indecision had tipped. Under yellowing skies, we drove north.

I remember pausing at a rest stop, taking off my KN-95 mask, and breathing pine-brushed air that felt like drinking cool water.

I remember pausing at a rest stop, taking off my KN-95 mask, and breathing pine-brushed air that felt like drinking cool water after a day of being parched. Distant blue skies receded as we entered the city and smoke edged further west. For a fleeting moment, I forgot that we were also living in a pandemic.

In Portland, Amy, Theo, Erin, Steven, and I discussed options, weighing the logistics of five people and two dogs and no clear end in sight. We could split up and stay with friends or family, or stick together in a hotel or AirBnB. Elanor had told us that the farm would pay for food and lodging, but I hesitated to accept such an offer, and I sensed the others did too. Even with five of us to a room, hotel costs would accumulate quickly. Still, sticking together made sense for a night or two. 

Erin found and booked a room in a hotel nearby. Her grandmother and father, who live in the area, welcomed us to their back patio with a steaming buffet of Thai curries, fried rice, and spring rolls—a measure of normalcy I didn’t realize I was craving. After dinner, Steven looked up from reading the news on his phone. They found the first two bodies, he said gravely. A 13-year-old and his grandmother, 71, had died in the Beachie Creek Fire. The news drove home, for me, how fortunate we all were, to have had the time and the means to plan a departure, to have made the choice rather than have no choice at all. 

We spent two nights in the hotel, the five of us taking care of each other with games, group check-ins, and meals cooked by microwave or on a camp stove in the parking lot. Perishable vegetables left over from market produce went to a local food bank. With the air still unhealthy or hazardous, I rarely ventured outside, and I relished the presence of Moon, Theo and Erin’s effortlessly effervescent Frenchie/terrier/spaniel mix, who bounced from bed to bed, escaped into the hall whenever he could, and chased his tail. On Friday, four days after Amy asked whether we had seen the emergency alert, we decided to part ways and stay in more sustainable accommodations. 

We don’t know when we will return to the farm. The latest updates from the sheriff’s office are hopeful, suggesting the fires can be contained if conditions remain right. As soon as it is safe, we will go back to Persephone, breathe its sweet air, and pick up where we left off.

Also tagged

Elizabeth Whitman is a writer living and working on a farm in Oregon. She was previously a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, and has also written for The Nation, Nature, Harper's, and other publications.