I wondered what the woman in the flowered dress was searching for in the rubble.
Surprisingly, there was not a trace of smoke in the air as I awaited the arrival of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and our Oregon congressional delegation to tour the extensive damage to Consumers Power Inc. from the deadly Beachie Creek Fire.
Walking along the side of the road in the Santiam Canyon, I’d witnessed an elderly woman with a shovel carefully digging around a carpet of ash. Nothing was left of her home except for her chimney, the bricks scarred by fire but still perfectly aligned.
The wildfire swept through the canyon with such speed and ferocity that many residents had no time to load up their valuables. They fled the area with fire on both sides of the highway, dodging falling trees and debris as if they were part of some antiquated video game. Those who were lucky enough to make it out alive—like this woman—often returned to find nothing left.
I stopped and watched her for a moment. Thankfully, she did not turn and see me gawking. She was too intent on unearthing a family heirloom or anything that may have survived the fire. I will never know what she was looking for, and it was none of my business anyway. But it was a heartbreaking image that will stay with me, especially because the home right next door appeared unscathed—a testament to the indiscriminate brutality of wildfires.
That afternoon, we briefed the FEMA administrator and our congressional delegation in the Oregon Department of Forestry parking lot—its headquarters also burned to the ground. We had a constructive discussion about CPI’s incredible efforts to restore service to the canyon and the necessity of burying power lines because of the threat of dead trees falling into energized wires.
Our business was important, and we were honored to have the attention of some of the most powerful officials in Washington, D.C., with respect to disaster recovery. But it also occurred to me that because we are cooperatives owned by our members, perhaps the real story was not us, but a few hundred years away, on a barren property save for an intact chimney.
As our federal leaders inquired about the future of the canyon after a catastrophic wildfire, they could find their answer from a woman bent over her shovel, her resiliency and quiet desperation telling them everything they needed to know.