In the northern reaches of the Willamette National Forest, Breitenbush Hot Springs has attracted visitors for generations with its wellness retreats and mineral-rich geothermal springs. All of this came to an abrupt halt in September of 2020, when one of the most destructive wildfires in Oregon’s state history, the Lionshead Fire, destroyed much of the retreat. With a lot of hard work and community support, however, Breitenbush is reemerging — with a few exciting changes.
The Impact of the Lionshead Fire
Over the span of just a few days, flames from the Lionshead Fire zipped across the land surrounding Breitenbush, decimating staff housing, the healing arts center and an adjacent group of privately owned cabins known as the Summer Homes. The retreat’s original 42 guest cabins and many of its oldest trees were reduced to ash.
Not all was lost. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of firefighters who stuck around while the forest was ablaze — and, perhaps, a bit of good fortune — many of the retreat center’s core buildings were spared. Leading the efforts was fire chief Jordan Pollack of the Breitenbush Fire Department, who has been active in firefighting since the late 1970s. “I’ve been to a lot of fires, and I’ve seen a lot of homes burnt to the ground in a lot of western states,” he says. “But I haven’t seen anything where it was so active … with so much destruction.”
Many structures survived, including the powerhouse where the retreat’s electricity is generated, the reservoir, the pumphouse and the main lodge, where meal services and most workshops take place. The tubs and thermal-heated steam sauna were also spared. The community has supported restoration efforts with both financial and hands-on assistance.
Building a New Sense of Place
More than two years have passed since the fires, and the Breitenbush of today looks like a very different place than it did before the wildfire. The dense green conifers that once flanked the retreat’s gravel driveway show the dramatic impact of the unprecedented burn. Themes of rebirth prevail as the community works to restore the land around the retreat. “One of the gifts that the fire gave us was just this incredible openness that we’ve never enjoyed before,” says forest steward and longtime resident Paul Clearfire, who lost his house in the blaze. “Now you can see the entire bowl of the valley [from the cabin area], and you get a real sense of place.”
Breitenbush has been able to welcome small numbers of overnight guests in tents, lodge rooms and yurts, but getting things back to full swing has been a long process. They’ve started by constructing a new bathhouse with showers and toilets along with a set of six ADA-compliant buildings, each with four guest rooms. Check the website for updates and join the waitlist now to be notified when the new rooms are ready for booking.
While the new structures are clad in protective materials designed to withstand fires, they are primarily built from wood that staff and volunteers milled from trees that were downed due to the fires. In fact, the fires and subsequent cleanup effort left Breitenbush with around 400,000 board-feet of lumber, 35,000 of which they held onto for rebuilding efforts.
Stewarding the Forest Into the Future
While the team has focused on rebuilding staff and guest accommodations over the past couple of years, they’ve also prioritized stewarding the forest back into good health while mitigating risks that come with living in an area prone to wildfire.
Mitigation efforts range from fuel reduction — which includes strategically thinning the forest, removing debris, cutting dead hanging limbs and transplanting trees — to creating what firefighters call defensible space around new and existing structures. This includes adding metal skirting and installing sprinkler systems to keep the ground wet. They rely on water from the Breitenbush River that flows through the property and from a 186,000-gallon reservoir, half of which is sequestered for fire-suppression efforts.
Helping the forest transition into its new, post-fire phase has also been vital. With the help of arborists, the Oregon Department of Forestry and representatives from Oregon State University’s Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Program, the staff at Breitenbush have been able to come up with thoughtful plans for restoring the forest. “What we ended up doing was dividing the land up into 30 different areas, each with its own special characteristics,” says Clearfire, “and then developing prescriptions for [each of] those areas.”
Rather than try to replace trees that already weren’t doing well due to environmental stresses or disease, the focus is on planting “resistant species that can survive and thrive in this particular environment that might not have been as predominant in the bygone days,” says Breitenbush co-founder and business director Peter Moore. “When I first started this task two years ago,” adds Clearfire, “I thought that my job was to save the forest or heal the forest or regrow the forest. But that is not what we’re doing anymore. We’re watching and listening to see what the forest itself is doing and then taking actions that support what the forest is up to already.”
If You Go:
- Breitenbush is open year-round for overnight stays (which include three vegetarian meals per day) and for day visits.
- Retreat staff plow and maintain local roads during the winter months, but you’ll need to carry chains from November to March.
- Consult TripCheck for the latest on driving conditions before you set out.
- Note that there’s neither a telephone for public use nor Wi-Fi, and the retreat is outside of cell phone coverage area.
- Tubs and the sauna are clothing optional.
- If you’d like to help with the rebuilding efforts, you can sign up for one of the regular service weeks, which offer reduced lodging fees in return for volunteer help. Check the event schedule for volunteer service opportunities, special women’s weekends and workshops.