Science and Environment

Search continues after storied forest advocate goes missing in Oregon wildfire

By Monica Samayoa (OPB) and David Steves (OPB)
Sept. 15, 2020 1 p.m.

Fire search and rescue crews are still searching for a missing person in Marion County thought to be the environmentalist who helped save a portion of ancient forest that would become the Opal Creek Wilderness.

On Monday, Marion County officials said they are still looking for at least one missing person in the area affected by the Beachie Creek Fire. The number of deaths remains at four people. Two days earlier, George Atiyeh’s daughter, Aniese Mitchell, posted on Facebook that Aityeh has not been seen since before the fires started and has officially been listed as missing.


“It is with a heavy heart that the Atiyeh family is officially listing George Atiyeh as a missing person in the Beachie Creek Fire. His house and property were a total loss. Search parties have been through the area of his last known location,” Mitchell wrote in her post.

She said the family is asking for privacy during this difficult moment.

Atiyeh, 72, lived outside Lyons. His home was found burned to the ground. He is best known for his role in saving the old-growth forest in the 20,454-acre Opal Creek Wilderness. Atiyeh spent 20 years fighting to preserve the land where he used to work as a logger and miner.

George and Hillary Atiyeh and their dog.

George and Hillary Atiyeh and their dog.

OPB/Sage Van Wing

Atiyeh is the nephew of the late Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh. Growing up, George Atiyeh spent many summer weeks at Opal Creek, where a family member owned the mine. Unlike many of the leading figures in the fight to save Opal Creek and the Northwest’s remaining stands of ancient forests, Atiyeh lived in a logging and sawmill community.

After about 12 years working in the timber industry, Atiyeh began a flying service, which he used to provide flights to politicians, journalists and others over the clear-cut logging areas where old-growth forests once stood. Aerial views of what could not be seen from roads and highways were credited with helping to turn public opinion in what has been dubbed the “timber wars.”


In a 1990 documentary, Mill City, co-produced by OPB and the BBC, Atiyeh described the difficulties he and his family encountered after he took a stand to protect the forest from logging.

“I became a pariah in my own community,” he said. “People wouldn’t talk to me. I went to watch my boys play football and I’d have the whole bench to myself. Everybody was afraid to even stand next to me or sit next to me.”

Worse, he said, were the death threats, the logging truck that tried to run his son off the road, and the bullying of his daughter.

In 2016, 20 years after the official designation of the Opal Creek Wilderness Area, Atiyeh talked about his life with OPB’s “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. He described how much it meant to him to grow up and spend his life surrounded by the waters and Douglas fir, hemlock and western red cedar forest of Opal Creek. He said he was happy to know the wilderness had been saved, but saddened to see hundreds of parked vehicles on the way to Opal Creek.

“I wanted to stop logging. I didn’t want them to love it to death,” Atiyeh said.

The Beachie Creek Fire started Aug. 16 in the Opal Creek Wilderness about two miles from Jawbone Flats, a former mining area where Atiyeh lived part-time in the 1960s and ’70s while managing the Shiny Rock Mining Co.

The fire had slowly grown over four weeks to 469 acres. Then, when historic, forceful east winds blew through the Santiam Canyon on Labor Day, Sept. 7, it grew overnight to over 131,000 acres. It was most recently reported as slow-growing 190,138-acre fire. In addition to the four confirmed deaths, it has been responsible for at least three injuries, and extensive destruction of homes and other structures, from Detroit to Mill City along Highway 22.

Marion County Senior Deputy Sheriff Ethan Griffith said crews are doing their best to search the areas and have been getting lots of requests from residents to check if their homes still stand.

“A lot of those roads, especially some of the side roads, still need to be cleared of obstruction before we can actually give a good assessment of the damage in those areas,” Griffith said. “Along with that, more importantly look for possible victims of this [Beachie Creek] fire.”

On Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Urban Search & Rescue response System began helping the Marion County Sheriff’s Office with search efforts. The FEMA team was also able to provide special equipment that is used for searching through fire and debris and K9 units.