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In The Wake Of A Wildfire, Oregon Residents Feel The Weight Of Their Loss


Back stateside, the Canyon Creek Complex fire in eastern Oregon has burned more than 67,000 acres and destroyed at least 39 houses. Some residents have returned to a blackened landscape and piles of charred rubble where homes and trees once stood. Now they're feeling the weight of their loss. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Preacher has more.

AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Tad Houpt turns his pickup onto a narrow, dusty road. Through this stretch of Canyon Creek, everything is scorched.

TAD HOUPT: And this is the part of the property I really lost.

PEACHER: Houpt is a logger who has lived here more than 40 years. On this mountain, he owns about 400 acres of timber. Nearly a quarter of that land burned.

HOUPT: See how it singed these almost to death?

PEACHER: He points to a tall stand of ponderosa pines. Their trunks are black and their needles brown, but he's hoping to salvage the core of the trees.

HOUPT: See, those trees will make it if the bugs don't get any of them.

PEACHER: Like everyone who lost property in the fire, Houpt is unsure about his future.

HOUPT: This is mine and my brother's life savings. This - we put our money into land and to manage it for the timber.

PEACHER: The day the fire blew up, Houpt and his brother scrambled to get their logging equipment off the mountain.

HOUPT: We heard it roaring 40 minutes before it got here.

PEACHER: But then, in moving some equipment, Houpt fell.

HOUPT: No, I knew right then I broke my leg. I heard it scrunch.

PEACHER: He kept his stiff, leather boots laced up tight. Then he and his brother drove around the mountain to save more of his logging equipment before he went to the doctor.

HOUPT: Yeah, and let me tell you, it's very painful pushing the clutch in on a log truck when - with a broken leg.

PEACHER: The trees that are salvageable will need to be cut within the next couple of months. Houpt is hoping he can still complete some of that work despite the cast on his leg. Much of the devastated land in this canyon is private. Landowners like Houpt are trying to get some help from the state to replant and restore, but it's uncertain when or if that aid will come through. Not far away, in the town of John Day, Ore., Courtney Fox pushes a shopping cart through the Red Cross Relief Center. A volunteer is helping her replace what was lost when her home burned.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you want a toaster?

COURTNEY FOX: Yeah, we need a toaster.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And let's pick out a microwave.

PEACHER: She lived in the house with her husband and 7-year-old, Brooke. It's the only home her daughter has ever known. Fox looks exhausted.

FOX: I don't know how I feel. I've probably never been so devastated in my life.

PEACHER: All that remains on her property is a pile of ash and, amazingly, her daughter's swingset. When she thinks about her leveled home, she's most torn up about her daughter's room.

FOX: Seeing her bed springs laying there in - where her room was is probably the hardest thing.

PEACHER: Brooke lost most all her toys in the fire. At the evacuation center, she finds a box full of donated kid things - stuffed animals, toys, books.

BROOKE: I'm totally getting this.

PEACHER: She pulls out a book called "Splat The Cat Takes The Cake."

BROOKE: All my books has been burnt, so that's why I'm getting other ones.

PEACHER: Brooke's mom, Courtney Fox, is grateful for the books. And she's not sure when or if they'll rebuild or what the next few months will be like. But now at least one thing can get back to normal for her family - bedtime story routine. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Peacher in John Day, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.