One of Oregon’s most beloved resorts is still standing, even as the surrounding forest and roughly half of its buildings were burned to the ground in the wildfires that have torn across Oregon.
The historic lodge, commercial kitchen, office buildings and critical infrastructure at Breitenbush Hot Springs all survived as the Lionshead fire burned through last week. However, all 42 guest cabins, the sanctuary and healing arts buildings, some staff housing and several workshops were destroyed.
“It’s a miracle,” business director Peter Moore said. “We’re still here.”
That’s thanks to two community members who stayed behind to protect Breitenbush, even as everyone else evacuated, as well as a group of three local firefighters who joined in their efforts, Moore said. Together, the small band of men spent two tireless days protecting what they could.
“They spent the next 48 hours from Tuesday into Thursday just defending the place, keeping it alive,” Moore said. “These guys, they’re our heroes for sure.”
The Breitenbush Fire Department – or, a BFD, if you’re a local – is a small, remote, nonprofit fire company of about 20 people that serves an area about nines miles northeast of Detroit. The department serves the hot springs resort and neighboring Breitenbush and Devil’s Creek summer homes community of about 80 residents, only a handful of which are occupied full time.
About 80 to 100 people live full time at the hot springs community, said Fire Chief Jordan Pollack, which is a self-sufficient resort with a conference center, saunas and its own power and geo-thermal heat.
“The Hot Springs retreat center has a long history and a lot of followers,” Pollack said “It’s one of the long standing historic lodges on the West Coast that has not been lost to fire.”
And, it remains so, even as the Lionshead fire, which officials say was caused by lightening, roared around it.
“Lionshead fire came in from Warm Springs reservation, came around Mount Jefferson, and in one afternoon, ran 12 miles and basically took out our two communities. We were in the path,” Pollack said.
Pollack evacuated nearly everyone from the two communities Monday night.
“We left 6 to 8 of our firefighters there to protect, and at 11 p.m. that night they all departed but one because it was getting too tenuous to be in there,” he said. “One firefighter stayed, who was joined by another summer homes owner who previously ran emergency services for the Hot Springs for many years, and the two worked closely together.”
Three more firefighters cut their way through massive fallen trees to reach Breitenbush midday Tuesday.
“And when we got there we realized conditions were a lot worse than we thought,” said firefighter Neil Clasen.
A number of resort buildings were fully involved in fire when they arrived, and the footbridge that connects the hot springs and summer homes over the Breitenbush River was partially ablaze.
The men went to work.
“Day and night, we’re hearing propane tanks exploding every five or 10 minutes,” Pollack said. “There was one night where I was up and saw the sky turn red at about 4 in the morning and thought, ‘Oh good, the sun’s finally coming up, oh wait, that’s not the sun, that’s the fire making more runs.’ And then I’d hear the roar of a freight train of a fire making a run up the hill through timber.”
Fighting the blaze for days on end, without cell reception or electricity, the men didn’t realize how devastating the fire had been to other communities until they came down from Breitenbush.
“We didn’t know what the outside world looked like,” Clasen said. “It wasn’t until I got out and saw Detroit, obviously, it was heartbreaking, and still no cell reception, and I drove down, and Gates was gone, and I got to Mills City and got some cell reception. I got ahold of my wife and found out how bad it was.”
Those firefighting efforts aren’t over. The Lionshead and neighboring Beachie Creek and Riverside fires continue to burn, fire officials said Monday. Crews are currently focused on establishing fire lines and assessing damaged buildings in areas that have already burned. The danger to buildings of falling trees remains.
“I think the main thing is that we made a difference,” Pollack said, before breaking down a bit from the weight of it all. “We gave it our best, without getting anyone hurt, which is the bottom line.”
At Breitenbush, where firefighters are still containing spot fires, the community is already beginning to look to the future.
On Monday, Breitenbush Hot Springs began soliciting donations online to help rebuild the resort and offer financial support their community members who lost jobs and homes to the fire. Moore said he has no idea how much money it will take to rebuild and reopen, but that any amount helps. Donations can be made at Breitenbush.com.
Right now, the hope is to reopen Breitenbush sometime around fall of 2021, he said, using next spring and summer to rebuild cabins and housing. It could reopen for day use sooner than that.
Until then, the resort will be focused on keeping the rest of the buildings and infrastructure safe amid potential floods and landslides that could follow the fires this winter. It will also focus on supporting the small community of people who have spent generations working and living at Breitenbush.
If not for the efforts of the men who stayed behind to protect the resort, the entire resort would be gone, Moore said. The fact that they hope to reopen at all is nothing short of incredible.
“Even when something like this happens, we’re going to maintain, we’re going to support, we’re going to flourish,” Moore said. “We’re here to stay, and we’re going to do what we need to do to rebuild and continue.”