Charred Fragments – Surviving the Oregon and Gray Fires

article and photos by Dallas Jade Graves

As I drank my morning coffee and started my morning, it would have never, even briefly, occurred to me that it was the day that thousands of lives within our region would be upheaved and forever changed.

It began with a text from my husband– “Fire in medical lake”. It was at this moment that the confines of time began to break down, and would remain that way indefinitely, although the level of severity did not reveal itself to me for several more hours.

fire destruction

The fear began to set in when I heard that the entire city of Medical Lake was being evacuated. One of my closest friends was getting ready to move halfway across the globe in a week to pursue her career, but had been staying at her family’s home in Medical Lake. She informed me they were being evacuated. My heart sank. The Gray Fire was now at 500 acres.

The fire was spreading North, rapidly. A normally quiet main street in Cheney was flooded with traffic of evacuees and first responders, accompanied by screeching tires, angry voices, and frantic horns. The evacuation zones grew. Routes back home were becoming congested, which only escalated as SR904 and I-90 were being prepped to shut down due to visibility issues and active flames.
Within these same moments, reports of the Oregon fire emerged, a Level 3 evacuation zone notice quickly followed. I called my mom.

“There’s a fire on Oregon Road… it’s only a couple miles from your house,” I told her.

“We aren’t home.”

Smoke billowed into my backyard. A brilliant sunny day was dimmed. I anxiously awaited for my husband to return home, as traffic barely crawled on the main street. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour… I packed a bag as the reports showed the fire moving closer to Cheney.

The winds shifted quickly. The fires were no longer moving Northeast, but South. The City of Cheney issued a Level 2 evacuation notice via their alert center, which was apparently corrected shortly after, but I missed it due to packing up as much of our life as I could.

My husband finally made it home and we continued packing belongings into our cars– then the phone call for emergency alerts came. Tears filled my eyes as I took a breath, preparing to leave our home. But as I listened closely, I realized the call wasn’t for our address– it was for my parents’. I called my mom again. Living in a rural area, they were too far away from home to go get anything, and were left with no choice but to surrender. We speculated over the fire’s trajectory, trying to hypothesize ways their house could be spared from the blaze, dissecting the edges of evacuation lines, and drawing upon them for whispers of hope.

We barely slept that night. Awoken by every notification from fire watch apps, we lay restless as the fires continued to rage. I anticipated grief for my parents, my childhood home, and both of the communities that I ever called my own.

The next morning, my friend and former neighbor contacted me to let him know that his parent’s property had also burned; their house, garage with classic cars, and more, was destroyed. On top of it all, they were desperately searching for a beloved pet. He offered to check on our family home.

I don’t really remember opening the messages with the photos. All I remember is curling up in a ball, sobbing, with an inability to say anything except “oh my god” over and over again. I barely remember the phone call to my mom– having to tell her that their home was gone was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to cough out.

My sister, brother-in-law, my husband, and I all met at my dad’s work to caravan out to the property; we felt it was important to be together to attempt to process the loss and to “say goodbye”. My parents greeted us.

“This is all we have,” my mom said, as she motioned to their bodies.

green shoot

The drive out was arduous and haunting. Each mile, the heat and smoke increased, tightening around my already constricted heart. Deep breaths maintained my strength on twisting mountain roads. Once lush forests transformed into dark, fragmented lines. The smoke was thick like paint, blurring the line between treetops and a grayed sky. Scorched lawns, trees, and homes served as painful reminders of the area that I’ve always called home. As we pushed further into the darkness, I thought of families, friends, old neighbors, and teachers– folks we had worked with, played with, and lived beside for years, even decades. The destruction around us was incomprehensible.

I sobbed as we pulled up the driveway. Seeing pictures of the ruins was one thing– but to witness it was gut wrenching. I instinctively walked through the gate and towards the front door that no longer remained. Each item destroyed held its own significance and carried with it a flood of emotions. We all circled the rubble multiple times, in an effort to make sense of it all. My mom retrieved an arbitrary metal rod to poke at remnants; cherished belongings reduced to charred fragments. Trying to process every item lost felt like an insurmountable task. Beyond material possessions, comfort and security were also devoured by flames. It was in these moments that the true depth of their loss became painfully clear.

The fire burned so quickly– a flatbed trailer holding planks of wood next to the house remained unscathed, with no evidence of damage except a flat tire and burnt grass beneath it. A green lawn, still untouched, resided between darkened hillsides and the remains of the house. Next door, fire came within inches of propane tanks and gasoline cans that never ignited– remarkable mysteries that we will probably never truly make sense of.

On our way back home, at one of the two stop lights in our small town, we saw the first beacon of hope amidst the tragedy. Community members had gathered with abundant resources; tables of food and water, trailers for animals, conversation, hugs. In such close-knit communities, it’s common to see neighbors rally together to offer assistance in any way possible. The bonds forged over years became lifelines as neighbors offered their homes, resources, and shoulders to lean on. The collective strength of our community is a potent reminder of the power of compassion in times of adversity.

As of now, my parents are safe, although still struggling to grapple with the depth of their loss. Our entire family is grieving, and we are not the only ones. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been deeply impacted by these events. Many of them, like my parents, have lost everything. Showing up with gentleness and patience is a necessity. It is important that we, as communities, intentionally make space for these families, to honor their feelings and listen to their stories, especially as entire lives are being rebuilt. Because as I have learned firsthand, there are things like love, legacies, and memories that can never be lost to fire.