Blue River, Ore. -- Standing in the middle of the McKenzie Community Track, one could almost be forgiven for forgetting what happened here nine months ago. Cars line the parking lot as some of the best athletes in the world warm up and relax. The vibe is loose, the trees are green and the sky is painted hues of blue and orange as the sun sets. While the immediate area around the track looks largely unchanged, the hillsides surrounding it tell a different story; one that started on September 7th, 2020.
Cliff Richardson will remember that day forever. It was the day the track saved his life.
"We eventually arrived here and we were here from 12:30 (a.m.) until about 4:00 that afternoon and watched the fire move past us and around us and over us," he recalled. "It was a different experience when you know you can't go anywhere."
Richardson is a second generation resident of the McKenzie area. The night of the fire, he was woken up by the Sheriff's pounding on his door telling him to evacuate the area immediately. High winds pushed what was initially a small spot fire into the town of Blue River and Richardson, his wife and their cat tried to escape. The blaze had completely engulfed the road east to Bend and by the time they tried doubling back west, it had raced them up the highway and outflanked them.
Completely cut off from the world and with fire on all sides of them the couple, along with 40 or so other residents of the area, spent 16 harrowing hours in the middle of the track. Just a mile or so away, Blue River burned. Propane tanks, gas lines and ammunition exploded in the distance. Smoke filled the air and nearly took away the senses. In a red hued darkness, with wind blowing embers all around them, the people on that track waited. Eventually, emergency responders were able to reach them and took Cliff, his wife, and the rest to safety.
"We were lucky that we were here and available that night for people to have a safe place to be because there wasn't any evacuating in that direction or in that direction," said Jamee Savidge, Secretary of the McKenzie Community Track Board.
When the smoke cleared and the winds changed, the community of Blue River was gone. Certain pockets of Rainbow, Vida and Nimrod were hit as well. Rebuilding has been a long and frustrating process for some residents. But Savidge, Richardson and others held strong in their belief that it can bounce back.
The McKenzie International
The McKenzie River holds a special place in the hearts of many. Most living in this area of the Willamette Valley have a story of hiking to Blue Pool, of hanging out in the Cougar Hot Springs, golfing Tokatee or floating the river. Portland Track President Michael Bergmann is no different.
"Every Olympic Trials I would stay at a friends house literally two miles from this track on the McKenzie River," Bergmann said. "After the fires, the house is gone. And for me there's a personal connection to the community."
One of Bergmann's long term goals is bringing the sport into rural communities all over Oregon and beyond. His company, IncubatorU, is spearheading an effort to bring a state of the art track and field complex to the town of Maupin. Prior to the fires in 2020, Bergmann did bring a track contest to McKenzie but it was an athletes-only affair due to state Coronavirus restrictions. After the long and arduous rebuilding process in Blue River, bringing the event back seemed a perfect idea.
And so, a host of seemingly unrelated companies came together to pull off the McKenzie International. Onward Eugene, a nonprofit based in the valley, teamed up with the McKenzie school district and Elevate Technology Group to pilot a new Citizens Broadband Radio Service in the area. So they pitched in to help provide the internet infrastructure to stream the event. Bergmann brought the athletes and equipment to make it a sanctioned international competition. Savidge worked with the community to bring in fans, volunteers to work the event and provide the space for all involved.
"It was a place that was a safety net for the fire as the fire came through so that was a a safe location for them," Geoff Turner, Elevate Technology Group CEO, explained. "I think the events happening now are a good comeback based on what the track had provided for the community and a chance for the track to give back to the community as well."
With the infrastructure in place, the event was streamed internationally as a pay-per-view event, with the proceeds going back to the Blue River community to aid in the rebuild. Team USA Olympic hopefuls hung out on their off day, beer in hand, taking it in as their international colleagues competed for Olympic times. Former Oregon Ducks Charlie Hunter and Jessica Hull reached qualifying marks for Tokyo in their respective events. A crowd of over 150 showed up in what was likely the biggest event the area has had since the fire and joy permeated a place that has had a hard time finding it this year.
The next lap of the Marathon
Highway 126 is the only way in or out of the McKenzie wilderness. You can either drive eastward out to Bend or westward to Eugene. There's no getting around the devastation if you're on the road. It begins in small pockets as you approach Vida and then overtakes your senses once you pass the Goodpasture Bridge. For the athletes who were unaware of what happened here, it was a sobering moment of perspective in the midst of an Olympic journey that most have been fighting for their entire lives.
Like those athletes, the residents of Blue River, Rainbow, Vida and the McKenzie area are running a race of their own. Each lap of the marathon is met with new challenges, new frustrations but a hopeful sense that the final turns are coming at some point. The daily battle of finding joy amidst the twisted metal and empty lots is deeply felt here. But the resiliency shown by people like Jamee Savidge and Cliff Richardson is not dissimilar to the runners battling on the homestretch of the track, Olympic dreams flashing in their eyes. For a brief moment in time on Tuesday, the residents of Blue River could see someone else battle and overcome. They could smile, cheer and catch up with friends on a track that is synonymous with life persevering.
"If you look around the track you'll see a ring of green and it's sort of a place of hope and a symbol of hope and if you look beyond that maybe things aren't as green," Matt Sayre, Managing Director of Onward Eugene, noted. "But here tonight I think it's a palce of hope, a place of inspiration."
The efforts were not lost on those living in the area either. Events are coming back to McKenzie as are the hikers, the rafters, the folks taking a rest stop lunch at Takoda's before heading to their final destination. As the charred ashes of the forest give way to new growth of life, Cliff Richardson believes a rebirth is coming for Blue River as well.
"For them to donate this and their efforts to come back to us, we really feel it. It's heartfelt. I can speak for the community on that. Once again it's these positive events that are gonna put smiles on folks faces and say I think I can live here again. McKenzie's gonna come back stronger than ever. It's gonna be a destination not something people say 'oh what a tragedy'. It's gonna be a dstination where people say 'look how they rebuilt. Look how they recovered. I really believe that."