science environment

At Home With Wildfires

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Sept. 28, 2015 11:13 p.m.

Carolyn Hodge woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of the lighting strike that started the fire that burned down her home.

At the time she wasn't worried. She and her husband were used to wildfires in the wilderness area on the hill above their canyon home. They had built their house with a metal roof, cleared the surrounding vegetation, and set it back a good distance from the trees as recommended by the U.S. Forest Service.

This fire, however, was different. Several days after the initial lighting strike, what had been two smaller wildfires joined together to become a raging inferno. Carolyn and Ira Hodge had just a few minutes to get out of the house they had spent the last seven years building.

The Canyon Creek fire burned about 100,000 acres and at least 43 homes were destroyed. As of the last update on Sept. 26, crews were still mopping up hotspots.

"This is a fire that the firefighters said: 'We've never seen anything like this.' It was like a huge flamethrower, just throwing flames and starting spot fires a quarter of a mile out in front of it...The whole canyon was just this huge plume, a black plume of smoke," said Ira Hodge. "And it looked like it was just going down devouring the canyon. And you know, when I looked at that I just thought, ...'That was our house. She's gone.'"

The Hodges run a church with two outposts: one in John Day and one in Seneca. Ira is a pastor, who also spends four nights a week driving to Portland and back in a tanker to bring fuel to Eastern Oregon. On the morning the Canyon Creek fire blew up, Ira was on his way back from Portland when he got a call from his wife.

"She could see the fire explode and come up over the mountain across the road. ... And so I was prompted to go past our house one more mile and see what the (fire) actually looked like ... and it was scary looking. It was just a big red glow on top of the forest."


Ira Hodge helped his neighbors evacuate their house and then went home to get his trailer to help transport livestock from the ranch down the road. By the time he got back with the trailer however, the fire had grown so quickly it was clear the Hodges' own home was in danger.

With the flames at their back, the Hodges managed to grab just a few things before getting their dog and their horse into the truck.

"All I could think of," said Carolyn Hodge, "is just grab what you can and get out. Because every time I went out of the house, I'd hear another tree explode. My car wasn't even full. I could have put a ton more stuff in there, but there was no time."

Carolyn had spent the previous day taking care of her neighbor's autistic son who was traumatized by the surrounding chaos of the fire. To calm him down, she made a game of packing the many family photos the Hodges had hanging on the walls all over their home. At that time, her home wasn't under an evacuation notice, and she had no reason to believe it would come.

"If [the neighbor] hadn't called me that morning, I probably would have lost all my pictures, because there wouldn't have been time to get them off the wall. I did get my grandson's ashes though, because they were sitting right there with his pictures."

The Hodges say it's unlikely they will rebuild their home in the same place, because the beautiful forest they loved to live in is now mostly ash. They are also worried about erosion.

For now, they're staying at the house of friends who are working in Alaska. Carolyn spends the nights on the couch in the living room while Ira is driving for his job.

"It's psychological, I think. It's not my house. I feel like I'm just a guest here," she said. "I don't have a home."

The Hodges have had to learn how to accept charity from friends, neighbors, and people they don't even know. It's a difficult lesson, they say, because they're usually the ones giving, not receiving.

"People just went to their closets and got sweaters and jackets and just brought them to me,"  Carolyn said. "We've gotten checks in the mail from sweet little old people that don't have any money themselves, and single moms ... and I didn't want to take it, (but) he told me I can't say no, because you've got to let them do what they need to do."

Ira and Carolyn say they will likely buy a house near John Day and rebuild their lives there. The experience of the fire, they say, will help them to better minister to their flock.

"I just know that when we go through these rough times, I've walked with the Lord for over 45 years,"  Carolyn said, "and I always come out on the other end with something new to share, and something new to help somebody with."