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First-person accounts of the wildfires from superintendents out West

By , and |  September 22, 2020 0 Comments

In a historic wildfire season, parts of the western U.S., including areas in California and Oregon, have been ravaged by flames.

The team at Golfdom talked to five sources recently in those areas about how they’re contending with thick ash and smoke, how some courses have served as bases for maintenance workers to safely sleep and how those in the industry are stepping up to help.  

In an effort to help support those affected, Superintendents Craig Hilty, Matt Grove, Laura Chancellor, Josh Loy and GCSAA’s David Phipps created a GoFundMe campaign to support golf course maintenance employees who have lost their homes to the wildfires. So far, the campaign has raised $23,000. To donate, visit https://gf.me/u/yywxmq or or contact Phipps at dphipps@gcsaa.org.

The following are first person accounts of the wildfires from superintendents in the region.

Wildfire near Tokatee GC (Photo: Sean Tully)

In the McKenzie River Valley in Oregon, near Tokatee GC, “once-in-a-lifetime” wildfires have become much more common. (Photo: Ty Patton)

Ty Patton, Superintendent, Tokatee GC, Blue River, Ore.

“We were having historic east wind gusts, up to 60, 70 mph. There were trees downed everywhere. A downed (power) line sparked a fire that was uncontrollable. I didn’t realize how bad it was until at 11:30 a.m. last Monday, we got a level three evacuation notice. My crew met at the maintenance shop. You could see it burning up the hill, just raging.

It was a terrible feeling even though we were upwind of it. We were watching a totally uncontrollable fire.

We’re all sleeping in our maintenance shop currently because it’s out in the open and it’s basically the safest place to be.

The interesting thing is that if you talk to the old-timers who have been in the McKenzie River Valley where we’re located, they can’t remember another forest fire, even in the vicinity. All of a sudden, we’ve had three in the last four years.

When we evacuated, we had to go around to the east. When I finally got to civilization again where I had internet, I learned that that fire had traveled over 20 miles in five hours. It had destroyed the town of Blue River. My understanding is that there are over 500 houses that are gone, more than 50 people missing at the moment. Hopefully they’re just in a different town, one confirmed fatality, tons of pets are missing.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime fire at the moment. I hope we don’t have more of these once-in-a-lifetime fires, but it’s possible.”

— Interview by Sarah Webb

A burned -out Rain Bird pump station near Boulder Creek (Calif.) GC. (Photo: Jerry Bibbey)

A burned -out Rain Bird pump station near Boulder Creek (Calif.) GC. (Photo: Jerry Bibbey)

Jerry Bibbey, Superintendent, Boulder Creek (Calif.) GC

“The area historically has not had a wild fire come through it in over 150 years, almost. In the last few years there have been more fires, spot ones … nothing over 25 or 50 acres.

On Aug. 16, we had an unprecedented dry lightning storm come through the entire Bay Area … it sparked some fires out on the coast, probably 20 miles away from the golf course. Then, the fires continued to burn, continued to burn. On (Aug. 17), it was getting smokier and smokier at the golf course. That evening, around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., the smoke was very thick. There was actually ash coming down from the sky. Around 6:30 p.m. we got the call to evacuate the golf course.

The golf course was in an evacuation zone until (Sept. 9) so there was no maintenance done, no water on the golf course since Aug. 18. We’ve lost all the greens. On top of that, the weekend before last (Labor Day weekend), we had four days over 100 degrees and no water, no nothing. One, there was no power and two, we’re not allowed into the area.

About 10 homes on the golf course were destroyed by fire. We’re devastated for everyone.

The fire came about 30 feet from my house.

All of the well wishes and prayers and everything of the golf course community that’s been poured out to me through my Twitter account, it’s been overwhelming at times. The support and the offers of help. I’ve had local superintendents from all over the area say ‘we’ll be there when you’re ready,’ and that’s just been really a blessing and also humbling and overwhelming. It just goes to show what a tight knit community that the golf course industry is.

Our goal right now is to step back, tap the breaks and figure out what we’re going to do next. Our immediate goals, we want to open the clubhouse and restaurant and be a community hub for the people that are coming back here. We’re just kind of feeling our way along as are a lot of people who lost everything in the fire.”

— Interview by Christina Herrick

Howard Robertson, General Manager, Santiam GC, Aumsville, Ore.

“My wife and I are fortunate; we live 30 miles West of where all the activity was. Aside from dealing with smoke and ash, our life hasn’t changed a bit. It’s tough to sometimes not be able to help. We’ll know in a few more weeks once they open things back up and they let people back in once the fires are contained, we’ll know how to better serve people.

Our biggest concern once we knew the fires weren’t going to reach us, unfortunately we had a couple of incidents with looters. The communities that burned down, once the fires got out of there, they were doing bad things. We ended up pulling all of our cash and our computers out of the facility and we posted signs on the windows to let the looters know, ‘unless you want shirts and golf balls, we’re not the place to be.’

Our golf course wasn’t touched (by wildfire). Luckily the fires stopped spreading about 12 to 15 miles from us. We’re clear of fire damage but we’ve been under this blanket of smoke for about 10 days. One employee lost his home and we had a couple others that have been displaced until they can get back into their homes.

We let one of the families settle into our restaurant area for a few nights so they could figure out what was going on for them, so there was a safe warm place for them to be. Fortunately for the other families they had a local family that they could go be with.

It’s hard to put everything into words and perspective. The ups and downs, first knowing that you have members and employees’ families that are potentially going to lose everything, to the relief that some didn’t. It’s hard to put into words where your feelings go for that.”

— Interview by Christina Herrick

Jerry Minor, owner/superintendent, Ranch Hills GC, Mulino, Ore.

“We can’t even go out and work. I can’t see the first hole — the smoke.

I worked four hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday with a really good mask and I’m still coughing. I have to stay in today. It’s a 9-hole golf course, you come into the parking lot and I’ve got a clubhouse building and an apartment above. My wife and I own the golf course and we live above the pro shop in a little apartment.

You can’t go outside, nobody can go outside. The smoke is too thick.

We had 120 golfers on Labor Day. The fires started September 8, and then we left and we went to Oregon City. We helped our daughter evacuate from Sandy, Ore. Then we evacuated from Oregon City and had to go to Hillsboro, Ore. We came back on Saturday morning because I had to work on the greens. I had to blow the ash off of the greens. It can’t sit there.

Our phone hasn’t rung, we locked the gates. Nobody’s golfing. The whole course had debris blown on it, and six fallen trees. We blew them off and then I mowed around the greens and I mowed again to pick up the debris because there are leaves everywhere. You just have to get the stuff off.”

— Interview by Christina Herrick

David Phipps, GCSAA Northwest Field Staff Rep, Oregon City, Ore.

“I’m sick of 2020, what else can this year throw at us? This came on really quick. Winds came from the west, not just ordinary winds but raging, 50 to 60 mph coming over the Cascades. With 90, 95 degree temperatures, that’s a recipe for disaster. These things grew like none other.

I’m here in Oregon City, there’s a huge fire east of Eugene that started just a few hundred yards to the west of Tokatee GC, probably my favorite course in the state, an amazing facility. They dodged a huge bullet, because right now they’re ok. But everything down the McKenzie River Highway, from their course to almost Springfield, has been demolished. It’s tragic, it’s horrible.

We have the worst air conditions in the world right now. We surpassed Beijing and Delhi in terms of air quality. You step outside and you can smell it. We’ve got ash all over our cars. For the superintendents out there still managing their course, regular dust masks, homemade jobs, aren’t going to cut it. You have to have N95 and those are hard to get.

All the superintendents I spoke with, they all had employees who have lost homes that have been totally demolished. We’re setting up a GoFundMe for them. The damage is considerable. I just want to get some clothes on their backs and maybe a $1,000 each if we can.”

— Interview by Seth Jones



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