GATES, Ore. (WGN) — While stories about the wildfires ravaging the western U.S. are usually told in the aftermath, one farmer caught his firsthand account of heartbreak and hope on camera.
Lives of the residents of Gates, Oregon have been upended as it remains under a Level Three fire evacuation order Wednesday night.
But 36-year-old farmer Anthony Jacobson recorded almost the entire ordeal as the Beachie Creek Fire swept across rural Oregon, destroying his home and nearly the whole town of Gates.
On Labor Day, Jacobson faced an inferno.
Winds howled between 50 and 60 miles per hour as gusts swept across treetops and carried embers which floated in the sky, ready to ignite wherever they landed.
“Probably the most horrific sight I’ve ever seen and been so close to,” Jacobson said. “My only thought was, ‘it’s over.’”
There was no time to spare as Jacobson got his wife and in-laws to safety. When they gathered the family pets they found their dog and three cats, but they couldn’t find an unnamed rescue kitten they had just adopted.
Jacobson then went back to help his neighbors.
“I spent the rest of the night doing anything I could for anyone in the canyon,” Jacobson said.
He noticed the nearby home of an old friend who is away serving in the U.S. Marine Corps was about to be engulfed in flames, so he tried to save his car.
“The propane tanks were exploding… I unfortunately couldn’t save the car,” he said.
It was four days before he could return to the family property. It was a total loss, except for a trailer that somehow went untouched by flames.
“Sure enough we hear these tiny little ‘meows’ coming from underneath the trailer, and here’s this kitty,” he said.
The kitten they thought they’d lost, had been found.
“It’s a miracle, you know, it’s been hard, you know; to get a little glimmer of hope and happiness from the tragic situation, was really good to see,” Jacobson said.
It is one good memory of an unimaginable ordeal that stole everything from the family farm to the family photos.
“It’s hard to think of the memories and the things you cannot replace that are gone but we have our memories, and we’ll hold on as best we can,” Jacobson said.
Standing in Salem, OR near the hotel where he’s been staying, he’s anchored in the only thing he has left: his boots.
But he’s still standing, and that’s the point. His strength has been forged by fire. And he said all of his efforts moving forward will go to rebuilding the family farm, no matter how long it takes.
“We will do everything we can to put it back together,” Jacobson said.
After all, a fire doesn’t really test the character of a person. It reveals it.