FINN ROCK – Two years ago, the Holiday Farm fire ravaged McKenzie Valley communities — just days before the new school year was set to begin. After the fire was fought and the smoke cleared, the community began rebuilding, leaning on each other for support and speaking up about the shared trauma of living through the tragedy.
It’s been a long and challenging recovery for schools like McKenzie School District in Blue River, which lost its football stadium and a few outbuildings on campus in the 173,025-acre fire. After over two years, with the help of state and federal grants, new grandstands for the stadium are being rebuilt — and students are making their mark, leaving hand prints and initials in the wet concrete, to memorialize how far they’ve come.
“I’ve never considered myself a huge football person, but I still always enjoyed coming to games and hanging out with friends and seeing people that I knew on the field,” said Anna Riedmann, a McKenzie High School senior. “You don’t realize how impactful that is until it’s gone.”
Crews got to work replacing the grandstands earlier this month and the bleachers are expected to arrive by the end of November. “This is the last phase of construction to make us whole again from the fire,” Lane Tompkins, McKenzie River Superintendent said. “We still have a lot of recovery ahead, as a community, but this is a step forward.”
McKenzie High School was the only school in Lane County to have the fire jump onto the property line, damaging a storage building, the concession stand and the stadium. Tompkins says the fire department defended the schools furiously, temporarily getting surrounded by fires in the process.
More than 700 families lost their homes during the Holiday Farm Fire. Tompkins estimates a third of his staff and a quarter of his students are among them. “A lot of our district staff was experiencing losses of their own,” he said. “And they did an incredible job, stepping up and providing as much of a sense of normalcy as they could.”
Although new homes are popping up, there are still many families without secure housing. Many have been displaced to neighboring towns, including Eugene and Springfield, and have not yet had the opportunity to return – affecting enrollment at McKenzie High School.
Before the fire, they had about 225 students. This school year, they started with 175. The area continues to face housing shortages due to a variety of factors, including supply shortages, insurance issues and affordability restrictions.
“We’re meeting kids where they are at, and bringing a lot of trauma-informed resources into the classroom,” Tompkins said. “We still have kids driving with their parents from the Eugene/Springfield area every day, to continue to be a part of our school community. We’re looking out for each other, and offering students and families grace when they need it.”
The district has replaced the materials for the lost buildings with fire-resistant materials. This summer they were able to upgrade the “old gym” to be seismically stable, thanks to a $2.3 million Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program through Business Oregon. During the aftermath of the fire, the “old gym” was a community hub, a place to access internet, food, caseworkers and get insurance help — during the month-long period they were unable to travel to Eugene/Springfield due to road closures.
“Our school has played a lot of different roles as this community heals,” Tompkins said. “People feel welcome here. One big takeaway from this was about community for me. It doesn’t matter who you are, who you vote for, who you pray to, what your beliefs are, when it comes down to it, people will help people.”
Tompkins hopes the new stadium will bring a sense of normalcy and fun to his students and the surrounding community.
“It was a big loss,” Riedmann said. “I’m really hopeful that we’re gonna be getting back into some things that like most people would consider tradition.”
Last year, neighboring school districts Phoenix-Talent and Santiam Canyon donated branch sculptures created in their metal fabrication classes to incorporate into the new structure.
“It’s a community reminder of what we went through and what progress we’ve made,” Tompkins said. “These kids learned a hard lesson in resilience and recovery, and as they get older and face any other hardship they might, you know, they know, times can be dark, but, you keep working through it, and good things happen.”