Science and Environment

George Atiyeh’s death in Oregon fires confirmed by family; residents permitted to return home along Highway 22

By Erin Ross (OPB)
Sept. 25, 2020 5:24 p.m. Updated: Sept. 25, 2020 6:17 p.m.

Oregon icon and environmental activist George Atiyeh died in the Beachie Creek Fire. His family confirmed the death in a Facebook post on Thursday.

“Although we are saddened that this was the final outcome, we are thankful to finally have closure,” wrote his daughter, Aniese Mitchell. “We appreciate all the love and support from family, friends and community.” She asked that donations in his honor be directed to the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center.

George and Hillary Atiyeh and their dog.

George and Hillary Atiyeh and their dog.

OPB/Sage Van Wing

Atiyeh was a miner-turned-logger-turned-environmentalist, who grew up exploring the woods of Opal Creek, where his family ran a mining operation. When it became clear that the old-growth forests around Opal Creek were being considered for logging, Atiyeh fought back, using what he described as legal and not-so-legal tactics to save the forest. It earned him few friends and made him many enemies in the logging communities of the Santiam Canyon, but Atiyeh did not stop.

When it became clear that one man could not save Opal Creek on his own, Atiyeh began flying politicians and journalists over the forests and clear-cut patches, providing a birds-eye view of the toll logging had taken on Oregon’s old growth forests. Those trips were credited with helping to change the tide of public opinion in favor of the forests.

Atiyeh succeeded, and today old growth forests, streams and waterfalls of the 20,454-acre Opal Creek Wilderness have become as iconic as Atiyeh himself. His remains were found on his property.

You can read more about Atiyeh’s life here, and listen to the story in Atiyeh’s own words in a conversation with Dave Miller on OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”

Residents return slowly to Santiam Canyon

Officials were able to lower evacuation levels to Level 2 “Be Set” Friday for a narrow stretch of land along Highway 22 from Lyons to Detroit to Idanha, which burned in the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires.Conditions remained hazardous, so the Oregon Department of Transportation will be escorting home and business owners on a pre-arranged schedule in and out of their properties. Debris and fire-damaged trees continued to fall into the roads: it was not safe for motorists to travel Highway 22 on their own.

As residents return home to evacuated areas, officials say to expect areas of both burned and unburned trees. Because there is no complete line of burned forests, fire crews will continue to connect containment lines throughout the area, which might take several days.


Although it’s safe for residents to return, they should be prepared to leave again at any moment. High winds could also topple fire-damaged trees, which may appear healthy. Fires are still actively burning, and stumps and tree roots continue to smolder near homes. Firefighters ask residents not to call 911 for these logs: they are being tracked by fire crews. The area is still smoky.

Oregon receives emergency aid for fire-damaged roads

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Springfield Democrat, announced Friday that the Oregon Department of Transportation will receive nearly $8 million in federal disaster funding.

Several of Oregon’s Cascade highways were badly damaged during an unprecedented fire event following a Labor Day windstorm. The fires burned vegetation holding rocks in place, sending them crashing into the roads. The Oregon Department of Transportation has been working to remove small slides, downed trees, and rockfall for the last two weeks.

After a fire, the understory and root structures that hold surface soil in place are gone. Small and large bits of soil and debris called “dry ravel” slowly move downhill, filling up creek beds and runoffs. Those runoffs eventually lead to the same canyons Oregon’s highways follow through the mountains.

Several storms have brought inches of rain and gusty winds to burned areas, further complicating cleanup. These highways pass through steep canyons and are already prone to landslides and rockfall during the rainy season. Fire has only made that worse. High winds continue to bring down trees and cause small rock and landslides along the highways. ODOT officials expect that to continue even after roads are opened. They expect travelers will experience delays and temporary closures for months to years as more debris is freed by rain and time.

There are eight major routes over Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Five of them were seriously impacted by fires. Of the damaged roads only Highway 138, which traverses the Cascades near Roseburg and Crater Lake National Park, is open. Conditions on the road are still dangerous. Officials are asking travelers to stay in their car, stay moving, and to be prepared to find unexpected debris blocking the roads. Since so many major routes are closed, the others are congested and travel is slow.

Fire updates

Heavy rains soaked fires burning across northwestern Oregon on Thursday. Unlike the thunderstorms that rolled through previously, the rain came slowly, which helped it penetrate deeper into the ground.

There was no new growth and very little fire activity at the Beachie Creek Fire, and no additional growth is anticipated Friday. Officials were able to lower evacuation levels for some residents along Highway 22.

The Lionshead Fire grew by a little over 1,000 acres Wednesday and Thursday. It is considered 28% contained. The fire remained active, but most of the activity is in previously unburned “green islands” deep within the fire’s perimeter.

Fire activity remained low at the Holiday Farm Fire, Archie Creek Fire and Riverside Fires, where dry fuels continued to burn under thick, sheltering forest canopies.

The Slater Fire saw some rain Thursday, which aided firefighters in controlling new spot fires that started during Wednesday’s wind event. That moisture is expected to have dried by Saturday, and high winds are expected to continue to make containment difficult. Warm, dry, windy weather is expected to build through the weekend and into next week. The fire was 25% contained and several communities in the Illinois Valley and to the north and west of the burned area remain under evacuation warnings.

Fire-suppressing rain is expected to continue in much of the Cascades Friday and through Friday night. Although the rains have helped suppress fire behavior, they are not expected to put the fires out.