Planning Magazine

Lessons from Oregon’s Historic Wildfire Season

Disaster recovery calls for grassroots planning grounded in collaborative activism.

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The Holiday Farm Fire forced these Lane County, Oregon, residents from their homes in September. Here, they line up for food and financial aid at a church in nearby Springfield. Photo by Bryan Denton/The New York Times.

Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the publication or the American Planning Association.

If someone told me a year ago I would spend part of 2020 masked and door-knocking in a hotel in a pandemic, carrying my inhaler to combat smoke irritation, I would have thought that sounded more like a dystopian novel than real life. Yet that is my memory of September: delivering meals to families and individuals taking refuge at the Graduate Hotel in Eugene, Oregon, after the Holiday Farm wildfire forced them to evacuate their homes.

Last year saw unprecedented damage from wildfires, both in Oregon and across the world. The Holiday Farm wildfire ravaged the ancestral land of the Kalapuya, Molalla, Winefelly, and Yoncalla tribes, as well as the lands of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, otherwise known as the Willamette Valley.

While delivering meals served an immediate need, it felt like merely step one in the face of so much damage. Coming off my weekends volunteering and supporting mutual aid efforts, I felt overwhelmed and lost. How could we move beyond volunteering as triage? I wanted to help sustain momentum toward long-term recovery, both as a resident and a young planner, but I did not know where to start.

I found a place to begin in the Holiday Farm Advisory Committee, a coalition of allied professionals and community members providing their skills on a pro bono basis. While our work has only just begun, participating in this group underscored what I felt in September: We need more places where agile planning professionals can strategically pair key skills with local needs outside of the typical fee-for-service construct, especially in the wake of disaster.

With the compounding national challenges of a pandemic, an economic recession, a shortage of affordable housing stock, and increasing and recurring environmental catastrophes, displacement will only continue to strain the ability of individuals and families to maintain stability in all its forms. These barriers are even more significant for the communities our society has long disenfranchised because of their race, class, and ability.

Responding to all of these pressures and more will be an immense job — but it is also an invitation to drastically reimagine who we are as planners, and what it means to serve communities in Earth's current age, the Anthropocene.

A new era of disasters

The Holiday Farm wildfire was fueled in part by reduced rainfall and suppression of traditional ecological knowledge in current forest- and fire-management practices. Much like the COVID pandemic, it was especially disastrous because it hinged on vulnerability.

A disaster "happens when a natural hazard collides with vulnerable people and vulnerable infrastructure," Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, has said. Vulnerability is a spectrum, and the past year has shown that increasingly more of us sit closer to one side than the other due to climate change and legacies of outdated environmental policy decisions.

Americans tend to think of environmental refugees as "other": people we don't know living in faraway places. However, anyone who has "been forced to leave their traditional habitat because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously effects the quality of their life" is an environmental refugee, according to the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research. By this definition, environmental refugees are our neighbors, our peers, our friends, and our families. Planning for and with these populations is no far-off challenge. It is here, and it is now.

A new era of planning

In the wake of the Willamette Valley's trauma, a group of architects, the American Institute of Architects Eugene, and community leaders formed the Holiday Farm Advisory Committee. Made up of planners, landscape architects, engineers, professors, and other allied professionals, we are currently working with leaders of the McKenzie Community Development Corporation in a pro bono capacity to identify ways we can help reestablish communities that have been impacted by the fire. Working outside of a fee-for-service structure builds a template for a just recovery where limited access to capital does not preclude access to planning and design services.

This group also highlights the professional response needed at local levels, especially from private practitioners and academia, to help support communities on their self-determined road to recovery and resiliency. Luckily, we are not alone in these efforts — many small towns across the U.S. have formed similar systems for providing professional aid in the wake of increasing disaster.

I hope these responses usher in a new era of radical grassroots planning grounded in collaborative activism. One that prioritizes the most vulnerable in the face of climate change and seeks to build systems of support beyond fee-for-service structures. Planning that not only honors and relationally incorporates Indigenous knowledge for stewarding the land we occupy, but also acknowledges that everyday land-use action is climate action, because where and how we develop land impacts community resiliency and can redress past harm.

How these principles manifest in each community will be determined by the people who live there, but my experience highlights that planners and allied professionals must ask ourselves what we can give, and how we can get started. Local needs evolve constantly, and committees can only respond based on the leveraged abilities, resources, and relationships of those who are present and willing to give their time.

I am neither a refugee, nor a climate change expert. But I am a planner who has entered our profession with a weighty inheritance: the moral imperative to root social justice and climate activism into the bedrock of our profession in the post-2020 world. Just as we must adapt to our new climate, our way of serving in our profession must adapt, too.

It's been several months since I was pushing food carts down the halls of the Graduate Hotel. In all that time, I've never stopped thinking about the future of planning — or a question posed by author and activist Naomi Klein that everyone in our profession should be asking of themselves: "History knocked on your door. ... Did you answer?"

Kelsey Zlevor (she/her) is a planning consultant at Cameron McCarthy Landscape Architecture and Planning and an appointed member of the City of Eugene Sustainability Commission.